Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” in his seminal book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man published in 1964. Back then the medium were television, movies, books, newspapers and magazines. He couldn’t have envisioned the explosion of mediums that carry the messages in the digital age.
Today the ultimate “extension of man” is the mobile device. If mobile is the medium, then mobile apps are the message for brands and retailers. But there is still a lot of work to do to put the full power of mobile shopping into the hands of consumers.
Mobile as the on-ramp to the digital highway
As of February 2021, Pew Research Center finds 85% of Americans own a smartphone. As a result, it has become the primary on-ramp to the digital superhighway. In 2020, over 60% of U.S. website visits originated on mobile devices, only 38% from desktops and 3% from tablets, according to a Google Analytics study.
Smartphones play a pivotal role in people’s lives, most especially for GenZs and Millennials, who are digital natives. They wake up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night.
It is also the ultimate multi-tasking tool. People have it in hand when doing other things, like dining with their friends, and consuming other media. It is their source for news, communications, connections, entertainment, research and increasingly, their digital shopping assistant.
During the pandemic, our mobile devices became even more important. For those consigned to working from home, their desktop and laptop computers became workplace central, so when they wanted to have fun online, they grabbed their phones.
Retail therapy, or shopping as a means to boost one’s mood, was one of those fun uses. And with people experiencing such high levels of pandemic-induced stress, they turned to digital “therapeutic” shopping to alleviate it.
A recent Bazaarvoice survey among over 9,000 consumers worldwide found that a majority (54%) enjoy “window shopping” online more than in-store browsing.
But turning that virtual window shopping into actual buying is where mobile presents roadblocks.
Roadblocks on the digital shopping highway
More than half of consumers (51%) say it is easier to make online purchases over a computer than on a mobile phone, according to Forrester. They are discouraged by small mobile screens and feeling less secure transacting payments via mobile. Further, they find websites less functional on mobile as compared with a computer and the transaction process is simply not optimized for mobile phones.
That may explain the gap between the 61% of website visits that originate on mobile and the estimated 45% of e-commerce transactions completed on mobile in 2020, according to Business Insider Intelligence.
Without doubt, 45% of e-commerce sales last year was a huge volume – some $356 billion out of the $791.7 billion conducted through electronic shopping. And it was a huge jump from the estimated $269 billion in m-commerce sales in 2019, but it still has a long way to go.
“Consumers are reliant on digital devices now more than ever, and Insider Intelligence predicts that mobile will inch closer to becoming consumers’ preferred channel for online shopping within the next five years,” Insider Intelligence reports. “M-commerce has the potential to become a major channel for shopping and to change consumer shopping habits.”
To hit mobile’s stride and reach its full potential, it will take a multidisciplinary effort combining technical sophistication and human engineering powered by psychological insights, believes Bhrugu Pange, managing director of technology services at AArete, a global management consulting.
“For mobile commerce to succeed it takes an understanding of data, design and how people think,” he shares. “Few companies really understand all of the components. They need to understand the person shopping and then present personalized screens or personalized shopping journeys that keep them engaged.”
“Retail needs to be fun and entertaining, not a chore,” Pange continues. “And mobile phones must do that.”
M-commerce needs to evolve to Me-commerce
While the industry is talking more about m-commerce, i.e. commerce conducted over mobile devices, Pange offers an even more important concept: me-commerce, which McKinsey defines as the ultimate personalized shopper journey.
Since consumers are living their lives on and through their mobile phones, Pange believes me-commerce is best realized via mobile commerce.
“Me-commerce is the personalized experience that nurtures a personalized journey,” he says. “It must be nurtured by data. Mobile phones are the new personal computing devices. They have all your personal information. That is where the data is collected to make shopping truly delightful.”
Unfortunately, too many retailers’ mobile apps are playing catchup in realizing me-commerce with Amazon and social media sites ahead in the game.
Putting power into customers’ hands
“Mobile commerce may flow through many different channels, including distributors, stores, online retailers, big-box apps and social media. Facebook, for example, has a huge presence in this way because they control so much user data,” Pange shares.
For every good retail mobile app that is able to personalize the shopper experience, there are many others that end up in the app junkyard, used once or twice but then abandoned.
“It takes good app design to bring customers back monthly and keep them active. That is one of the key metrics in the mobile adoption world,” he relates and points to Bonobos as excelling through personalized curation
For example, by retaining a customer’s purchase history, the Bonobos app will serve up suggested new items that might go with something already in your closet. Such personalized curation nurtures tremendous brand loyalty, the Holy Grail for retailers.
“Mobile apps must do four things: offer information, be convenient, be entertaining and further connections. Few offer all four, but the most successful ones provide three out of four, like Facebook which provides information, entertainment and connections,” he continues, noting that Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Shops are adding the convenience component as well.
And because these personal computing devices go everywhere with the customer, retailers can engage shoppers in-store with apps that can act as shopping assistants. Home Depot excels in this.
“I shop at Home Depot frequently and it used to take me about 70% of my time in the store just figuring out where I could find what I needed. Now I go to the store, pull out my phone, do a search and it tells me exactly where I need to go to find it,” he shares.
“This is what omnichannel must look like. Whether you are in an analog shop, on a browser or using your mobile phone. It all converges into one experience, one journey,” Pange concludes.