For Consumers, Mobile Shopping Still Perilous

Retailers are rolling out apps to make mobile commerce a little easier

Headshot of Emma Bazilian

Have you ever tried to make a purchase on a retailer's mobile site only to find that it takes several decades for the page to load, your unwieldy fingers can barely click through the site's selections, and the pictures are so tiny that you can’t be sure whether you've just bought a pair of shoes or a toaster? And that's if the retailer even has a mobile site—if not, you might just give up altogether.

Due to the difficulties of mobile shopping, retailers report that only 2 percent of sales are made over mobile devices, according to The New York Times. ComScore, a Web analytics firm, estimates that in the last three months of 2010, shoppers spent $1.1 billion via their phones, and although it was sharp increase over the course of the year, it still amounted to just 2.6 percent of total e-commerce sales for that period a number far below where experts believe it could be. "Sales through mobile haven’t been growing as rapidly as we would have thought," Sucharita Mulpuru of Forrester Research, which tracks the technology industry, said. "Many retailers haven’t even optimized their sites for mobile, and who wants to spend their time pinching screens and mistyping links?"

Definitely not consumers, it seems. According to Tealeaf, a software company that monitors buyers’ online behavior, 85 percent of shoppers expect their mobile shopping experience to be just as good as it would be on a computer, and these consumers rate mobile shopping as more frustrating than sitting in traffic or visiting the DMV.

And while retailers view mobile commerce as a huge potential source of revenue—in 2010, Ebay made almost $2 billion in mobile sales and could double that number in 2011—most don’t even have mobile sites, not to mention apps. According to the Acquity Group, by mid-2010, only 12 percent of the top 500 United States online retailers had sites compatible with mobile browsers, while just 7 percent had apps. Now, many retailers are rolling out sites and apps to try to make mobile shopping as convenient as possible.

The Times points out Amazon’s app as the best example of its kind. It offers barcode scanning to minimize the need for typing, voice search, automatic fill-in for typed searches. It also stores customers' billing and shipping information to make for a faster checkout—one of mobile shopping's biggest drawbacks because if paying proves too complicated, a customer is likely to abandon the purchase. "With mobile technology, you can lose a shopper very quickly," said William Rosen of Arc Worldwide. "Little misses and dead ends often result in a different transaction, a different retailer, and a different end product than if they had been able to complete the transaction as they desired."

The apps offered by some auction and flash sale sites have succeeded too. Rue La La, a sample sale site, made 12 percent of total sales through its mobile app in the first quarter. The app requires customers to sign in before shopping so that they can make one-click purchases. "Part of it is psychological, moving the log-in to the front of your experience, instead of interrupting while you’re in the checkout lane," said Steve Davis, Rue La La’s president.

Hipmunk, a travel search site, also made the Times' list of successful apps. Its app is geared toward the iPhone’s limitations, so search results are displayed on short lists that the app magnifies the results for clearer reading, rather than forcing users to wait while a new page loads. Hipmunk also did away with the problem of mobile payment by allowing users to pay on their computers after making a purchase.

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.