The line between mobile websites and apps is becoming less clear, at least in the world of commerce.
It wasn’t all that long ago when companies longed for a mobile app so their mobile ‘strategy’ could be deemed complete.
A floodgate of apps opened and they continue to be dangled, pushed and teased for consumers to give them a try.
The wave of apps then met the sea of smartphone shoppers who, it seems so far to be leaning heavily on the mobile Web. Or perhaps more precisely stated, they’re using their phones to visit retailer websites as they shop.
Which brings me to Staples, the world’s largest office products company and the second largest internet retailer on the planet.
The company was an early mover to e-commerce in big way back in 1998 and they’ve been looking at mobile pretty much the same way (Staples is in a case study in my latest book, Mobile Influence).
About a year ago, the retailer opened a research facility in Cambridge called Velocity Lab. I visited the lab on the day it opened, before it was even staffed.
At the time, Prat Vemana, director, Velocity Lab and mobile, told me the intent was for the center to deliver new mobile experiences for Staples worldwide, since the company operates in some 26 countries.
A few weeks ago, I went back to the labs to see what they’ve been up to and received a detailed briefing on their new mobile commerce website, being phased in starting today and into next week.
The retailer re-thought the entire user shopping experience and essentially reverse engineered the site from that.
In my view, the new mobile site now looks and acts like an app.
Mobile shoppers will be able to search for products and receive results based on their location, see in-store availability on a map, reserve items for in-store pickup and create shopping lists.
Other app-like features include easily seeing items you frequently bought, your order history, current deals, access to your rewards dashboard and a new checkout requiring just a few clicks.
So why all the emphasis on the site and not the app?
Vemana says the company poured so much research into the site re-do rather than the app based on how mobile consumers shop Staples. We’re talking a rather stunning 90% range.
All the mobile rework was done at the Velocity Lab, now filled with staffers, part of the retailer’s stated objective of tripling its e-commerce and engineering staff by next year. “All things mobile happen here,” says Vemana.
As the mobile commerce market evolves, the roles of mobile sites and apps is taking better shape.
For example, the Starbucks app is great for paying at checkout, RiteAid for prescription renewals and apps like Rue La La, Gilt and Groupon for flash sales.
If the majority of mobile shoppers migrate to retailer websites rather than their apps, the approach to sites will have to evolve.
This means linking together various aspects of the shopping experience, such as inventory availability, customer location, online logistics and loyalty information.
“We have a lot of data,” says Faisal Masud, the new executive vice president, global e-commerce at Staples, who plans a focus on big data and data warehousing. “We need to do the heavy lifting for the customer,” he says.
Both the mobile site and the Staples app have been around for years and I’ve been a regular user of the app for some time.
The mobile site will continue to promote that shoppers download the app. The problem now is that consumers may not see the need to.