Online shopping's popularity is growing by leaps and bounds. According to a 2008 Nielsen Global Online Survey, more than 85 percent of the people with access to the Internet have made a purchase online [source: Marketing Charts]. It's also a young industry -- just a few years ago, only a few sites like eBay and Amazon.com saw a lot of traffic. Today, thousands of retailers and manufacturers have online shopping options that let you skip trips to stores and long lines.
Just as companies were getting a handle on how to interface with the Web, everything changed, and it's all thanks to mobile devices. If online shopping is young, the mobile Web is still a toddler. Smartphones and tablets have created the demand for a new online experience that's tailored to touch-screen interfaces and smaller screen sizes.
These devices have also prompted a new focus on apps -- custom programs that create specific experiences. Since the introduction of the iPhone, mobile apps have become a big buzz word in tech circles. Every year, dozens of startup companies launch, promoting apps running on all sorts of devices. Retailers have been paying attention to the trend, and many of them have their own apps that let you shop virtual stores without accessing the Web.
Amazon and eBay haven't gone anywhere -- in fact, they lead the way in shopping statistics through mobile apps. In June 2012, a survey showed that Amazon's shopping app had 12 million unique visitors and eBay's app was up to 13 million [source: King].
Which is better, using the Web or using a retailer's app? As it turns out, the question isn't easy to answer. On the next page, we'll explain why.
Case By Case
To measure a retailer's app versus its Web site requires a case-by-case approach. There's no global truth we can point to that says one is automatically superior or inferior to the other. That being said, with more people around the world buying devices like smartphones and tablets, it's possible that this could change as retailers try to court new customers. But today, you need to look at some specific factors.
First, what are your shopping habits? Do you tend to shop at only a few stores? If so, a retailer mobile app may be your best bet. Apps tend to be streamlined and easy to navigate -- they remove all the extra features you'd find on a Web site and focus more on transactions. But if you shop at lots of different stores, managing and organizing all those apps could be a headache. It may be easier just to use a Web browser -- a single app -- than to constantly switch back and forth between various retailers' apps.
Another factor to consider is the quality of the app versus the Web site. This will vary from one retailer to another. If you're using a mobile device exclusively to do your online shopping, the mobile version of a retailer's Web site might not be the easiest to navigate. But not all apps are created equal -- some may have bugs that limit the app's usefulness. Be sure to read user reviews of any app before you commit to one. It could save you from a headache down the road.
Finally, think about security. Any reputable retail establishment will treat customer security seriously. You'll be using some sort of payment process whether you're on an app or the Web. It's important that you look into how each retailer treats security issues. Don't assume that a retailer's app is more secure than its Web site or vice versa -- do some research. You may want to focus on Web sites and services that include security features like two-step verification.
Retailer apps offer us the promise of convenience. Just make sure that you practice good security habits when you shop, whether it's with an app or a Web site. Create strong passwords, change them regularly and keep track of your mobile devices.
Assuming mobile online shopping continues to grow in popularity, we should expect to see companies invest more money in supporting it. Many retailers are experimenting with apps that not only let you shop their inventory, but also incorporate features like customer rewards or price comparison and tracking. In the future, apps may be the clear winner in the online shopping industry. For now, an app's usefulness depends partly on the design of the app and a lot on your shopping habits.
I buy things online. Sometimes, I use my phone. It means I don't need to leave the house.
- King, Rachel. "Nielsen: Mobile shopping apps can help in-store sales." ZDNet. Aug. 6, 2012. (Sept. 19, 2012) http://www.zdnet.com/nielsen-mobile-shopping-apps-can-help-in-store-sales-7000002218/
- Marketing Charts. "875MM Consumers Have Shopped Online – Up 40% in Two Years." Jan. 29, 2008. (Sept. 19, 2012) http://www.marketingcharts.com/wp/direct/875mm-consumers-have-shopped-online-up-40-in-two-years-3225/
- Rueter, Thad. "Online holiday shopping will increase 17% this year." Internet Retailer. Sept. 17, 2012. (Sept. 19, 2012) http://www.internetretailer.com/2012/09/17/online-holiday-shopping-will-increase-17-year
- Siwicki, Bill. "Half of smartphone owners use mobile shopping apps." Internet Retailer. Aug. 2, 2012 (Sept. 19, 2012) http://www.internetretailer.com/2012/08/02/half-smartphone-owners-use-mobile-shopping-apps