Mobile Apps vs. Mobile Sites: Where Should You Invest?

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Mobile commerce has been growing steadily, and just this past year more than half of top retailers’ online transactions were made via mobile. And since mobile is estimated to account for 45% of ecommerce sales by 2020, retailers want to know where should they invest – apps or browsers?


Ideally, you can invest in both to provide every shopper with their preferred experience, however that is expensive and not always necessary. Here are some things you need to consider before investing in your mobile experience.




To have more opportunities to make a sale you need to make it as easy as possible for shoppers to find your online store. Because shopping apps need to be downloaded before use and have limited exposure outside the app store, they’re at a disadvantage.


Less than 20% of organic searches are generated from outside the app store, meaning it’s difficult for shopping apps to get discovered. However, now more retailers use keywords in their app titles to increase their market reach.


Mobile websites can reach a wider audience because more people use standard browser search engines, such as Google, on their mobile devices. In fact, mobile search now accounts for almost 60% of all organic inquiries in the US and Morgan Stanley found website traffic is twice that of apps.




Mobile shoppers love to get personal. From the moment they reach your online store, customers want every element tailored to their needs. In the next three years, more than one-third of shoppers expect mobile to become more personalized. Both mobile options can offer a personalized experience, but apps have greater potential.


It only takes one click within an app for retailers to start building customer profiles because they can attribute all data to a specific user and mobile device. From there, personalized suggestions start showing up on carousels or banners, helping shoppers find what they want faster. Retailers can also use push notifications via their app to communicate with customers or re-engage them with incentives.


The mobile shopping app, Mallzee, takes personalization to a whole new level with a Tinder-style experience. In the app, shoppers build their profile by swiping photos of products left or right to signal a like or dislike. After a customer likes a photo, Mallzee can then send customized push notification to stimulate sales.


Because retailers can’t link cookies to individual site visitors for extended periods of time, it’s harder for mobile websites to create a personalized experience. The best alternative is to have more shoppers sign up for a membership to your store because interactions can then be correctly attributed to each specific user.




Offering an easy-to-use mobile experience is important because 40% of shoppers will go to a competitor if they have a poor experience. The first opportunity to show how usable your site is starts the moment shoppers launch your app or website.


Online shoppers have high expectations for load times, but they are a little more lenient when it comes to mobile. For an app, shoppers will wait up to 6 seconds before they leave whereas 40% of customers will depart if a mobile website takes more than 3 seconds to load. However, it doesn’t matter how fast your website loads if nobody can find what they want.


Navigation can vary among the different mobile options, but apps also have the upper hand on usability. Even with a ‘mobile-first’ mentality, responsive websites are at a disadvantage because they share the same structure as desktop sites. It’s not easy to design a website that is perfectly optimized for all screens, which is why many retailers opt to create a separate website designed specifically for mobile users featuring bigger buttons, different calls to action, more menu options, etc. But because there are many mobile browsers (and they all behave differently), apps have the highest potential for navigation because they are able to control the entire experience without having to design around browser functionality.


Mobile apps let retailers create an experience that’s customized to the phone’s OS, giving every shopper the best mobile experience – regardless of what smartphone or tablet they use. Apps also have access to device hardware such as a camera, GPS, accelerometer, compass, list of contacts, or mic, which can be all used to make mobile shopping easier. For instance, the mobile app lets shoppers virtually try on glasses by accessing the phone’s built-in camera.


Which do shoppers prefer?


From a customer’s standpoint, it’s a pretty close race between apps and mobile browsers as 20% of shoppers say browsers, 23% say apps, and 24% are indifferent. Shoppers like each experience for entirely different reasons.


Of those who voted for apps, 28% said the better user experience is a significant benefit as well as speed, available features, and push notifications. Where apps fell short was the download requirement, necessary storage space, and limited access to products.


With mobile websites, shoppers dislike them because they’re slower, less personalized, and offer limited shopping alerts. On the flip side, one-third of shoppers prefer mobile browsers because the content is more extensive while nearly a quarter prefer mobile websites because they don’t need to download anything to shop.


But where are shoppers spending the most time? Last year, people spent nearly two hours a day on apps and nineteen minutes on the web. Although app usage soared, the numbers are deceiving because most time is spent on social media and messaging apps – only 4% was spent shopping.


Additionally, last year shoppers downloaded more retail apps. In a 6-month span, people that owned more than six retail apps jumped from 33% to 37%. However, apps have a small lifespan as 80% get deleted after one use.


Where’s the money?


The question on every retailer’s mind – which is the more profitable mobile option? From looking at the Criteo mobile report, it would seem apps:


  • Apps account for more than 50% of mobile transactions
  • The conversion rates for apps is 3.5X higher than mobile browsers
  • Mobile app AOV is $127 compared to $91 for a mobile website


Although these stats show apps are the better option in relation to sales, conversion, and AOV, you need to also consider the cost because developing, maintaining, and updating an app is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.


The verdict


There’s no right or wrong answer to this question because it all depends on your customers, your business, and your resources. While it’s not an easy decision, as long as you keep your shoppers at the core of your strategy you’ll see success. The only goal you need to focus on is keeping your customers happy – and coming back for more.


Enjoyed the post? Check out The Mobile Movement: Why You Should Invest in Mobile | How Mobile Advancements Have Changed M-Commerce and the Customer Experience