Practical Ecommerce

Mobile Commerce: Website or App?

According to Forrester Research, mobile commerce sales will grow from $10 billion in 2012 to $32 billion in 2016, accounting for more than 7 percent of total ecommerce sales. With the adoption of smartphones and tablets accelerating worldwide, that percentage could be even higher.

For smartphones, there is an ongoing debate about whether to develop an optimized website or an app for commerce. I think that debate should be reframed. All retailers should have a mobile-optimized ecommerce site, period. Whether they invest in an app is the question. Many observers believe that with the adoption of HTML5 and CSS3, there is less need for mobile apps to create the desired customer experience. I suspect that argument will shift over time as app development environments become more robust.

On tablets, one could argue that the shopping experience for most stores is similar to one on a laptop. However, with more statistics showing that the use of tablets is highly concentrated on leisure and shopping activities, there is a ripe opportunity to develop tablet apps that take advantage of its features.

The decision to develop a mobile-optimized site or a mobile app can depend on target customers, products you sell, competition, investment required, bounce and conversion rates, and many more. A key consideration is the number of screen formats, resolutions, browsers, and the operating systems that are behind them. It reminds me of the ongoing battle with having your web browsers — Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, and Chrome — render the same.

This article examines a few of the variables for small and mid-sized ecommerce companies to consider for smartphones.

Smartphone Website Options

Below is an example of an ecommerce website that is not smartphone optimized. I’ve spoken with many ecommerce executives who think this is acceptable, as they receive a few orders from smartphone shoppers, in spite of having a site that doesn’t render well on those devices. My question to them is, “How many orders did you lose?”

Shipwreck Beads' non-mobile site as displayed on an iPhone.

Shipwreck Beads’ non-mobile site as displayed on an iPhone.

Option number two is to use your shopping cart’s mobile capabilities. Many carts now support responsive themes that allow stores to render on smartphones.

For example, here is a CoreCommerce webstore that has the basic smartphone features enabled. There are formatting issues, among other glitches. There are some variables that can be tweaked. But to build this out properly and test on a variety of Android and Apple devices would be a substantial amount of work. The store is functional, but not optimized by any means. In the example below of a basic product listing page, I found problems with viewing product reviews — there was no obvious way to adjust the template and CSS to accommodate them. I also found issue with several symbols that did not render properly as I probed deeper into some of the available settings.

Example of a CoreCommerce mobile webstore.

Example of a CoreCommerce mobile webstore.

The third option is to use a mobile ecommerce hosting platform. This seems viable for many small businesses. Here is an example of a store,, hosted by, which provides a SaaS solution to host your store, provide a mobile-store manager, with basic order management functions. It uses your product data feed to generate the catalog for the store, so you can likely adapt your existing feeds for Google, Amazon, and other marketplaces. In the example below, notice the faceted search capabilities you generally will find on more sophisticated stores. Some other helpful features include coupons and free shipping options.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the orders do not come into your existing ecommerce platform. You can likely automate that process with custom development. Also, customers will need to recreate their accounts and will be disconnected from their order history. But, if you believe you are attracting new, incremental customers, this may not be important., as hosted by, as hosted by

The Big Etailers

For large retailers, the customer experience is the same on a standard browser, smartphone browser, and an app. This is typically because the retailers use powerful ecommerce platforms, like Oracle’s Endeca, to deliver a seamless customer experience. Consider as an example. Below are examples of its standard website, smartphone website, and app.

Target's full home page.

Target’s full home page. on an iPhone 5. Note the promo — which is located on every page — to download its iPhone app. on an iPhone 5. Note the promo — which is located on every page — to download its iPhone app.

Target's iPhone app.

Target’s iPhone app.

Notice that the customer experience is consistent, with the same icons, categories, and order. As you drill down, you will find the same guided search on all three platforms.

The app contains helpful features that the smartphone-optimized version does not.

  • Usability. Better user-interface elements for many parts of the design. See example below for filtering the search results.
  • Consistent navigation. The bottom of each page — hidden behind the Target logo — takes you to featured items, products, weekly ads, lists, stores, and “my Target.”
  • Barcodes. You can use barcode scans for search — leveraging showrooming in other stores for a price check on

Target’s implementation of filtered search in its app.

Target’s implementation of filtered search in its app.

Beyond Target, however, I tested several mobile websites and their related apps. This includes The Gap, CDW, and Amazon. In all cases, the apps were more elegant and offered features that were not available in the mobile websites. Speed was roughly equivalent on an iPhone 5.

Here is an example of a more elegantly designed item-detail page within Amazon’s app that delivers a better experience than its website. I like the page for its simplicity relative to their standard website detail page.

Amazon's item detail page on its iPhone app.

Amazon’s item detail page on its iPhone app.

One of the helpful features on smartphone apps is the ability to add sliders for product promotions and features. Here is a slider that is used on the CDW’s app, on the home page for featured items. Notice the feature to deliver quick access to order status and quotes. One feature that is lacking on CDW’s app and smartphone-optimized site is the ability to choose or add payment options. You must do that through an authorized user login from a full-browser website, which is common.

Mobile apps allow for convenient sliders.

Mobile apps allow for convenient sliders.

One other feature that was common to all sites — standard browser, smartphone, and an app — was the multichannel nature of their stores. They offer options to filter and find items available in local stores as well as fast access to the locations of their stores. This is critical to anyone with physical stores.


The verdict is still out on whether you need a mobile app. There is an expense involved, and as you build out the app on iPhone, Android, Microsoft, and Blackberry platforms the investment goes up substantially.

Whatever you do, plan for your mobile website now. You will need it to keep your competitive edge in the coming years.

Dale Traxler

Dale Traxler

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  1. Delia Wilson Lunsford January 3, 2013 Reply

    I have created a mobile version of Zen Cart using the same database as the non-mobile site so you can have both on same server and same site. This is not an optimal solution but it’s going to be extremely difficult to come up with enough responsive design themes to satisfy cart owners. The Zen Cart core team is hard at work looking at responsiveness in the next version but at the moment there’s little choice. I really don’t see that having a mobile app for one’s small store is reasonable – the big stores aren’t doing it – they are coming up with mobile versions. I went for an app-looking mobile theme – more at

  2. Padraic Ryan January 3, 2013 Reply

    We have been using the Pinnacle Cart platform for the last year, and have found the mobile ‘skin’ to be extremely beneficial to our clients’ mobile conversion rates. It isn’t an ‘app’, just a mobile-optimized skin that removes most of the clutter of the main site. The default cart has a few basic designs to choose from, but you can also customize it to your liking. A very clean, simple layout that looks a lot like an app. If you are truly serious about targeting your mobile customers an app is a great tool, but cost-prohibitive for most small businesses. If your cart doesn’t offer a mobile-friendly skin, it may be time to switch to a cart that does – as you could potentially be losing thousands in lost sales. There are a few carts out there that are on the cutting edge of mobile commerce, but sadly most of them are quite far behind.

  3. Movyloshop January 7, 2013 Reply

    I agree. At Movylo Shop (, vast majority of our merchants make a lot more money with mobile sites than Apps, that are more for those who have a brand.
    Movylo Shop

  4. Andrea Kha January 16, 2013 Reply

    developments in the mobile space today as well as the evolution of the digital consumer are working together to create that future. (

  5. madjoel January 17, 2013 Reply

    It is important, as an Ecommerce provider, to have a presence everywhere. No matter the option you choose (web or app), you should have something available to your customers everywhere they’re looking.

    Apps can be built to accommodate those things on your site that customers do consistently (calculators, configurators and the like), or they can simply be a hybridized site that incorporates your (already) optimized mobile site with native controls in the form of a "wrapper".

    Certainly there are a multitude of ways one can enter the app market with more advanced functionality, but in terms of just being present in each app market when your customers search for you, hybrid apps are a fine way to go.

  6. YDeveloper January 22, 2013 Reply

    Web Browsers, Mobile, Smartphones and now Tablets, looks Amazing. If I have to choose a device for shopping then it will be tablet as I think it renders perfectly on tablet screen if I want to view and buy any product. The best solution is Responsive web design, if the site is simple and static but, if the site is an ecommerce store, then finding best solution is little more confusing. You give nice examples for what to select. Visit our website if someone wants to develop a mobile Apps from,

  7. Ori Schnitzer February 7, 2013 Reply

    Tenfoot is the easiest way to create a mobile optimized version of online stores. It allows retailers to adapt their existing website to all mobile devices within a few minutes, in a few clicks, and without coding.

    The result is a beautiful native-app-like experience in the traditional website, provided only to mobile users according to the device in use.
    There is no migration to a new platform, and it is seamless to the retailer after installation.
    The mobile website maintains the original domain (no sub-domain or hosted on external servers), which allows deeplinking and the best SEO.

  8. Yigal Carmy August 27, 2013 Reply

    The article’s starting point is that native applications delivers a much better UX than web applications. Today, with frameworks such as AngularJS you can produce SPAs (single page web applications) that resembles native application perfectly. As long as you don’t need the peripherals, there is no need to develop native for m-commerce anymore.

  9. Danica December 26, 2014 Reply

    “Thanks for this write-up!
    I would add that engagement with the mobile shopping app will be able to be key of mobile commerce in future.
    Social media and email marketing campaigns won’t do the trick for these demographics, so it’s important for merchants to get creative. One way to do this is through push notifications sent from a mobile commerce app which have a tap-through rate of about 40-50%. Email open rates hover around 15-20%. Mobile User are more likely to pick up their phones to see a notification and then shop than they are to take time reading a promo email or social post.
    That’s why mobile app builders like developes pushing notification feature as a key feature for retailers to boost their sales and their loyalty customers”

  10. Vipul Jhamnani January 15, 2015 Reply

    If you’re using Magento, then I’d suggest to check out Mofluid which is your complete magento in a mobile.

    It creates a mobile app for Android & iOS which is completely synced and has your entire product catalogue, orders, inventory, user profiles, tax, shipping, discount.

  11. Tatsiana May 20, 2015 Reply

    In my view the answer on “app or website” question depends much on your new vs returning customers ratio. Let me explain.

    When you have a strong brand, and purchases by returning customers form a significant part of your revenue, an app development would be a reasonable investment. You already have an audience to push the app. A mobile app is a product that helps make regular interaction with your brand easy. Your customers would be happy to have a handy tool to perform some relatively regular operations related to your brand on a mobile device.

    In case the main source of traffic for your store is search engine, and new customers are the majority of your audience, a good point would be to focus on mobile-friendly design for your website. I would recommend to install a mobile theme like this one and make sure you have those “mobile-friendly” sign near your website in search engine. In this case you still benefit from mobile traffic with no investments on app development.