About six months after the introduction of the iPad, at a summer session of the MediaPost Mobile Insider Summit in Lake Tahoe, I recall hearing the first murmurs that these devices were about to become an e-commerce force. We were still at the stage of asking whether “tablets are mobile” or not and figuring out how that sliver of very early adopters was using the “in-between” devices. But companies like Ubermind and SapientNitro, that were working with a number of major retailers, started reporting anecdotes about spikes in conversion rates and cart sizes from tablets that were beating the Web sites. Something clearly was going on here.
The tablet had tapped a mode that we didn’t even know many of us had. In the prime-time hours, away from work, unwinding and often in front of a TV medium built by, for and to support a modern culture of consumption, we were ready to buy. Like flipping pages in a magazine, scanning a store shelf, or just rifling through racks of apparel at retail, the basic swipe maneuver of the tablet interface has a kinetic allure that was unique in the history of digital devices. Come on. Fess up. I am not the only one who looks forward to the evening fondle of my iPad.
And so it is not surprising that eMarketer argues this week that m-commerce increasingly means t-commerce. In 2012, they estimate that the amount of revenue generated from purchases made via tablets ($13.86 billion) handily exceeded those made on a smartphone ($9.86 billion). The rate of growth for t-commerce (154.2%) was far ahead of the slightly more mature m-commerce platform (31.6%). In 2013, tablet commerce will be more than double that of mobile. While eMarketer finds that 11% of all e-commerce in 2012 took place on devices, 6.2% was just from tablets, which is expected to rise to 9.4% this year. By 2016, tablets will be an unavoidable force in online sales, accounting for 16.9%.
eMarketer’s projections are supported by harder numbers by a new report from marketing tools provider IgnitionOne. They found that in 2012 search ad impressions from tablets rose 212% vs. a rise of only 20% on smartphones. Search ad spending on tablets was also up 163% compared to 87% on smartphone search. They are seeing 18% of search budgets now going to mobile.
The scale and velocity of tablet commerce growth points to a few new realities of the multi-screen world. First, our definition of “mobile” is already outmoded. Declaring all device-based interactivity and buying as m-commerce is misleading. It suggests mobility -- that these are purchases happening close to the point of sale and out-of-home, when in fact they are likely happening closer to the point of inspiration. This makes all the difference in the world when it comes to marketing strategies, and especially cross-platform messaging. Just emerging now into the market are second-screen ad networks that will target ads to devices in sync with on-air advertising. This synergy between tablet and TV screens will be massive.
Likewise, much of this activity represents a different mode of Web browsing and so more directly impacts a site’s general Web design. It would be nice to get more granular insight into tablet behaviors vis-à-vis apps versus Web in terms of e-commerce.
Personally, I am amazed at the level of t-commerce activity, just given the crappy state of browsing on a tablet. Let’s start with the browser itself. I still find basics like form filling and password handling on Safari woefully behind the actual kinds of activity many of us attempt with it. I have found myself migrating increasingly to the Chrome browser for iPad in part because it remembers form material more effectively. But neither browser feels optimized for commercial interactions. Given the level of commercial activity going through tablets already, I would have expected Apple to revise the experience and build in more conveniences that made purchasing easier. Many of the good revisions Apple made to the browser recently focus on the reading experience (text modes, saved Reading List) rather than the buying experience.
On the retail side, the tablet browsing experience is decidedly mixed. Navigate to Staples on a tablet and you will get a superb optimization that runs deep into the guts of the site. Performance is still sluggish for me, but the site makes deft use of pop-ups, oversized menus and drop-down filtering to make the tablet experience enjoyable. But most sites -- even the ones that claim to be tablet-friendly -- still use archaic text links that are the bane of the slimmest of fingers on a touch device. They fail to recognize that browsing on a tablet remains slower than on desktop and Web, and so the designs still rely on tortuous page reloads. I am still amazed that the Amazon Web site is so poorly tuned for touch.
I can’t be alone in pushing so many links from my tablet to my main email so that I can browse and research an item further on my desktop. But the reverse should more be the case. For most retailers, the tablet experience should be the most luxurious and engaging of all. I am using my tablet when arguably I am most likely to buy something, relaxed, in “personal reward” mode, awash in the images and pitches broadcast to us via the nation’s consumerist oracle -- TV. As these mid-sized screens emerge as powerhouses in the e-commerce ecosystem, they beg for better retail strategies that capture the tap-to-buy reflex.