Whether you are a dedicated online retailer, an online brand or simply sell through digital channels, all retail businesses are facing the same issue: the shift of consumers and transactions from desktop to mobile.

And, according to Peter Sheldon, Senior Director for Strategy at Magento, “The acceleration has happened faster than most brands are able to plan for”.

He says the new reality merchants are dealing with is the fact that more than fifty percent of total traffic to their digital commerce sites now comes from mobile devices. “And revenue is starting to flow just and strongly, with more than thirty-five percent of the online revenue coming from mobile transactions.”

These are average figures, he stresses. In some cases merchants are already seeing mobile revenue shares in the order of 70 to 80 per cent.

“We all knew we would get there but it happened faster than anyone predicted.”

The cost of speed

The shift happened with such pace that many merchants find themselves with mobile commerce sites that simply can’t meet the challenge.

“That is clear from the evidence the brands themselves possess such as the conversion rates on a mobile device. On the desktop the average conversion rate is about three and a half percent. For a lot of our merchants, it’s still only one and a half percent mobile.”

There are a number of reasons for this, with the most obvious being brands who have still not optimised their desktop sites for mobile.

“Responsive design [where the site adjusts based on the screen size] partly addressed this because at least it formatted nicely for the screen size. But the actual experience of shopping still sucks.”

Sheldon describes many online commerce experiences as “pretty horrendous … especially when we’re talking speed. Every action and every click and touch at the screen which triggers a page refresh can add seven, eight, or nine seconds on average. It’s a very frustrating experience.

“Then when you get into the checkout process, there’s a lot of form fields that need to be filled which can be tricky on mobile keypads.”

Native apps were frequently sold as a solution to these problems for many brands. However, many found they were not worth the investment. Consumers typically only have about 25 apps on their phones, and only a few of these they use regularly. With millions of apps on the App Store, getting access to the consumer’s precious phone screen is a lottery.

“If you’re a well-funded brand, like a big box store, and you have a multimillion-dollar app budget, the chances are you’ve probably built a pretty good native app. But they are expensive to build and you need two versions: one for Android, one for IOS. They’re expensive to maintain, because there are always changes to operating systems, and you’ve constantly got to innovate.

“But the biggest challenge is that the vast majority of online retailers simply don’t have the frequent interactions with their buyers to justify the investment. Many buyers might only buy from them once a year.”

Clearly, brands are looking for a solution that offers much of the functionality of a native app but without the compromises of more traditional responsive design sites.

Almost all mobile web sites today are still built using responsive web design. This, Sheldon says, comes with two problems.

“One, even if it’s responsive design it was was originally designed for the desktop. So it was a desktop-first design principle. And second, you’re sending the heavyweight desktop page down to the mobile, where you have bandwidth and other constraints, and this requires the mobile to do a lot of heavy lifting.

“As an example, in an image-heavy site you could be trying to send many full-resolution images down to the mobile, which can dramatically slow down performance.”

It is problems like this that Sheldon says Magento can fix through solutions like its recently announced PWA Studio.

He says the move to progressive web apps (PWA) is not merely a Magento idea. It is recognised as a trend by analysts such as Forrester and Gartner.

“The whole industry is now fully behind the idea that progressive web apps are the future of the web because they bring all of the benefits of a native app into the web browser, so they’re incredibly fast.”

A key reason for this is that a progressive web app allows for navigation — but without the inefficient page reloads. Instead, as you navigate the page it progressively transitions and progresses to the next page. That drives page load times down below three seconds — and for well-designed sites down to sub seconds. Sheldon says this is as fast as a native app.

“The user feels like they are in a native app, but there is no need to visit the App Store, to search for it, download it, and use storage capacity on your phone. You simply go to your browser, type in the store’s URL, and it comes up in under a second.”

Progressive web apps also mimic native apps in another important way: they can interact with the phone’s hardware in the same way a native app can.

“For online retailers that opens up functionality such as using the camera to scan for barcodes in the store, or interacting with GPS for location,” he says.

“It also means interacting with emerging payment types like Apple Pay and Google Pay.”

About this author

Andrew Birmingham is the director of the Which-50 Digital Intelligence Unit of which Magento is a corporate member. Our members provide their insights and expertise for the benefit of the Which-50 community. Membership fees apply.

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