M-commerce: has the mobile web finally won?

More smartphone users make purchases using a mobile browser than a mobile app, according to studies by ComScore and Forrester.

Not only are more smartphone users purchasing with their mobile devices, but more people are choosing to make those purchases via mobile web rather than via mobile apps.

These figures come from the latest European data from ComScore (July 2016), and echoes similar findings in a survey of US shoppers by Forrester (August 2015).

This underscores the imperative of striving for excellence in mobile web commerce, not just to facilitate purchases on the small device; but also to help drive onsite (instore, in-restaurant etc.) purchases – in which, we will also see, mobile web plays a critical role.

However, while web will be the route to serving the majority of your mobile customers, this does not necessarily prohibit investment in a mobile app.

Those retailers which have a sufficiently large core of extremely loyal and very regular mobile shoppers who will download, retain and use a mobile app, may be able to justify the very significant expense of developing, promoting and maintaining a separate mobile channel.

Let’s take a look at those numbers…

In Q1 2016, the proportion of smartphone users in the EU5 countries who made a purchase online was:

  • 33.8% in the UK
  • 28.3% in Italy
  • 19.2% in Germany
  • 14.5% in Spain
  • 13.5% in France

This is according to research by ComScore (July 2016). Smartphone penetration in these countries ranges from 69% in Italy to 81% in France.

In every one of these five countries, more people purchased via mobile web than mobile app.

The number of smartphone users purchasing by mobile web was only 1% higher than by app in the UK, but was 8% more in Germany, 22% more in Italy, 23% more in Spain and 25% more in France, ComScore’s data found.


The mobile customers to the website and app of Eurostar, the high-speed rail link between London and Paris or Brussels tally with ComScore’s stats.

Neil Roberts,  Head of Digital at Eurostar:

“We see about 5% higher traffic on mobile web vs app – so very similar trend. Although conversion tends to be higher on the app, as you would imagine as they are more engaged having committed to download the app.”

This isn’t just a European trend

A survey of US consumers conducted by Forrester/RetailMeNot (PDF) (August 2015), found that 43% of respondents had purchased by mobile browser in the previous quarter compared to just 30% who had purchased by app.

The important thing to note about the Forrester research is consumers don’t just prefer mobile web over apps for purchases, but for almost every retail-related activity.

This includes tasks that drive in-store purchases: locating a store; reading reviews; comparing prices; finding coupons; checking product availability; redeeming coupons; and checking out an instore promotion.

However much we celebrate the growth of online retail and the mobile share thereof, we should never forget that physical stores are still the dominant retail channel. In the US, physical stores still account for 90 percent of market share, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

The tricky thing is how retailers attribute/credit those the mobile web for its valuable role in driving those in-store sales. [But this fascinating topic of cross-channel attribution will have to wait for a future column].


Do retailers see more traffic from mobile web over apps?

It’s difficult to get a broad picture as many retailers are secretive about their mobile sales, and particularly about the breakdown between app and web. We can only speculate why this might be!

But if the UK’s Shop Direct is a benchmark then mobile web attracts considerably more traffic.

Shop Direct is one of mobile’s big success stories. The online-only electricals to fashion retailer concentrated on steadily building its mobile web business, before expanding into developing mobile apps.

This is a strategy that appears to be paying dividends: 59% of the retailer’s £1.8bn annual sales now comes from mobile devices (that’s smartphone and tablet).

Sam Barton, head of user experience (UX) at Shop Direct, tells ClickZ:

“The MyVery app currently makes up around 10% of our demand from mobile devices. We launched the app on iOS at the end of 2014 and on Android in July 2015. It now has over 900,000 downloads, and allows us to engage and interact with our customers in new and innovative ways.”


Compared with Shop Direct, UK retailers as a whole have been slower to capitalize on the m-commerce opportunity, with one third of top retailers still without an m-commerce site. But retailers do appear to prioritize mobile web over mobile app.

According to Internet Advertising Bureau, (March 2015) 64% of the top UK retailers (measured on digital ad expenditure) have a transactional mobile site, while only 32% had a transactional app.

Mike Reynolds , mobile manager, IAB UK:

“It’s not easy for a brand to get some prime real estate, in the form of an app, on someone’s phone. They have to compete with social media, gaming and news brands etc. which get more traction as they tend to be used daily and are engrained in people’s mobile behavior.”

My understating is that retail apps tend to be used as a retention tool.

This means by their nature, they will have a smaller, more loyal, audience than mobile sites, which are more discoverable through mobile search and social media.

Don’t dump your apps plans just yet

Research from Criteo (Q4 2015 Report) suggests a different story to ComScore and Forrester.

It finds that apps account for 54% of mobile sales among its clients, ahead of mobile browser 46%.


So how do we explain this apparent anomaly?

Whereas ComScore and Forrester conducted surveys of consumers, Criteo’s research is based on companies that use its digital advertising services. It is unclear if this is representative of global ecommerce sales. Some of the stats are surprisingly high, including the finding that in the UK mobile is 50% of ecommerce sales.

Leaving these reservations aside. Criteo’s stats are based on numbers of transactions rather than unique users.

If accurate, then while more people use mobile web to shop, mobile app users buy more. A lot more: Criteo believes mobile app conversion rates are not just higher than mobile web, but higher than desktop also.

So why might apps deliver better conversions than mobile web? We can speculate several possible reasons:

  • As only a retailer’s loyalist customers will download your app, these are also likely to be the biggest spenders.
  • Purchasing on a retailer’s native apps is preferable to the retailer website. Retailers will often invest more in a) developing apps to deliver better features and personalization than online; b) promoting the app; and c) will offer exclusive features, promotions, pricing and products that are not available via other channels.
  • Retailers are able to drive more repeat purchases using in-app notifications (which until recently were only available in native apps).

The problem with apps

The thing about native apps is customers can only use them if they have been downloaded to their smartphone. Research by the PEW Research Centre (November 2015) found that 77% of US smartphone users download apps, of these 30% had downloaded less than 10 apps to their handset and a further 32% had downloaded less than 20.

Many apps going unused: only 16% used more than 10 apps on a regular basis.

The following graph shows the top 25 apps in the US, according to ComScore (September 2015). There no retailers in the top 10. One, Amazon, in the top 20. Three, Amazon, eBay and Walmart in the top 25.

Some of these apps come pre-installed, but it still well illustrates the monumental challenge faced by any retailer to find its app a space on a customer’s smartphone.


This is well illustrated by the Forrester research, which finds that 60% of recipients had two or less retailer apps on their handset (21% had none).



Yoram Wurmser, analyst, eMarketer:

“Most people will only use an app for Amazon or their favorite retailer/s, say Sephora or Nordstrom. For most of their shopping, they’ll use the web, but the minority that use apps will be the best customers who are predisposed to buy often and with bigger baskets.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that most retailers should build an app. But if they have a dedicated customer base and a clear use case, it can make sense.”

Now let’s talk reach

For most retailers, commerce is a numbers game. Unlike publishers that earn money from ads, it doesn’t matter how long people hang-around, it’s about how many people pop in and how many products they walk away with (paid-for).

When it comes to numbers even for the biggest players, mobile web delivers lots more visitors than apps. The following ComScore (September 2015) graph isn’t commerce specific, it compares the top 1000 mobile web properties and the top mobile app properties in the US.

The mobile web audience is 2.5 times bigger and growing faster than apps.



The ComScore and Forrester research shows that customers are not just willing to use their smartphones to purchase but they are more likely to do so by mobile web than mobile app.

This underscores the imperative of striving for excellence in mobile web commerce, not just to facilitate purchases on the small device; but also to help drive onsite (instore, in-restaurant etc.) purchases.

Your competitive edge and route to better conversions will be delivering a mobile-first, user-centric m-commerce site that harnesses the best of the native app with all the accessibility and versatility of the mobile web.

Barbara Ballard, director of research, Radius:

“Don’t skimp on features for mobile web – people won’t want to download an app just to buy.”

Read the report: DNA of a Great M-Commerce Site Part 1: Planning 

This is Part 24 of the ClickZ ‘DNA of mobile-friendly web’ series.

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