Do You Need A Mobile Version Of Your ECommerce Website?

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This past weekend, I was casually glancing at my Google Analytics numbers when I noticed a statistic that surprised me. Almost 3 percent of our revenues last month came from customers making purchases on their mobile devices.

While 3 percent doesn’t sound like a huge percentage, this is pretty shocking to me on several fronts.

First of all, I never used to imagine anyone shopping or making purchases on such a tiny screen. Second, up until this point in time I hadn’t given mobile shopping a second thought because of my personal biases.

Personally, I would never use my phone to buy anything online and I had assumed no one else would either given today’s technology.

Photo By Generation X-Ray

While mobile users only represent about 5% of the overall traffic to my store, this number is clearly trending higher. In fact at this exact same point last year, our mobile phone and mobile device purchases were at zero.

In other words, last year no one bought anything from us using their phones. But given that mobile phone purchases are now on my radar, do I need to create a brand new store optimized for portable devices?

Some Statistics

Since I was curious, I dug a little deeper and found some statistics regarding ecommerce shopping on mobile devices and this is what I found.

  • 35% of US Web-enabled mobile phone owners said they had participated in some form of mobile shopping in the past year, such as browsing or researching but not necessarily purchasing products.
  • A PriceGrabber study showed that mobile purchases were only up 3% from the year before.
  • The largest category of products purchased via a mobile phone were apps or other digital content (ie. ringtones, music, video clips, games)
  • The second largest category for shopping via mobile was consumer electronics followed by computers, electronic equipment, books and finally clothing.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a concrete number for the percentage of consumers who actually made a “purchase” on their phones. I can understand doing a little comparison shopping on my phone while I’m at a brick and mortar store but in general I find it too frustrating to go through the entire checkout process on a 4 inch screen.

What Does It Take To Make A Mobile Version Of A Store?

So fine… The use of mobile devices for eCommerce is increasing. I can accept that. But what does it take to create a mobile optimized site?

In the back of my mind, I was thinking that it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Adjust the screen resolution, fiddle with some CSS parameters and voila! A mobile shopping cart! But after doing some research, I found that optimizing your site for mobile isn’t all that easy.

To make a website truly mobile, there are a number of things that need to be taken under consideration.

  • All pictures and photos need to be scaled down to lower resolutions for faster loading times
  • All background images need to be removed
  • The font size needs to be increased to improve readability
  • The site needs to be redesigned to flow vertically as opposed to horizontally. In other words, you need to turn your site into one long column that requires no side scrolling.
  • Pages that use the “float” attribute tend to wreak havoc on phones so they need to be removed
  • Pages that use mouseover states don’t work too well since your finger doesn’t quite work like a mouse, so these attributes need to be altered

In addition to all of the attributes above, there’s also the problem of detecting the fact that a mobile phone is accessing your site.

One way is to parse the user agent string at the server level and look for a mobile device, but with new user devices and new user agents coming out all of the time, you have to constantly update the list of devices that require mobile access to your site.

Do I Need To Take Action?

Given the amount of work involved, it still doesn’t seem quite worth it at the present time to design a new mobile version of my ecommerce store.

3% of revenues isn’t large enough of a percentage to sacrifice a good chunk of my time or my money to hire a developer. But there are some lingering questions in my mind. Would the number of mobile conversions go up if I did have a mobile optimized version of the store?

In addition, mobile versions of websites tend to be really ugly. Would a mobile site drive away customers who are looking for an attractive store to shop at?

These days, there are several open source shopping carts like Magento that have mobile features already built in. Should I just bite the bullet and migrate my site altogether to a brand new and more modern platform?

These are all questions that I will need to answer in the next year or so. Way back when I first designed our shopping cart, I had dial-up users in mind so I’ve already somewhat optimized our store for low bandwidth customers. Hopefully, that will tide me over for another year.

Just curious though. How many of you actually shop using your mobile phone? And if any of you run your own online stores, what percentage of your revenues come from mobile devices today?

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21 thoughts on “Do You Need A Mobile Version Of Your ECommerce Website?”

  1. I’ve done shopping through the iPhone app but never actually a website on my mobile phone. I think the trend will increase though but it might be a bit premature to make the whole investment in time and money just yet for mobile.

  2. Steve, my website home pages are extremely long. It would be very hard to read all of the information on my webite home pages using a cell phone.

    I have never shopped for anything using a cell phone.

  3. Steve,

    I was at a presentation by Steven Souders (yslow, now @ google) on mobile speed, in which he talked about mobile performance. He noted that the company Rakuten in Japan (which he equated with Amazon) was doing nearly 20% of their sales via mobile in 2009 and rising incredibly quickly. I know we’re not quite there yet in the US, but my understanding is the smartphone penetration will double to 50% in 2011. I suspect the time to get serious about mobile browsers is now.

    Re: technical implementation on detecting mobile you may want to look into CSS media queries and responsive design:

    This will allow you to avoid user agent sniffing and render different styles for smaller form factors.



    1. @Simon
      Wow, 20% is definitely significant. Perhaps, I’ll look into this further.

  4. The answer is yes. And not only that, every page on every blog should be using WPtouch or an equivalent mobile plugin.

    Also, if the “float attribute” is referring to ads that have to be dismissed to read the rest of a page, they should be removed regardless of whether it’s a mobile or normal web page.

    1. Hi Drew,
      I’m not talking about blogs where it makes much more sense to have a mobile version. I’m specifically referring to an ecommerce shopping cart where people have to browse goods and then buy something using their credit card or Paypal. The dynamics are completely different.

  5. Ah, understood. Well, I’d say my yes (and no to pop-over ads) still stands. :)

  6. Hi Steve,

    I have never purchased anything on my cell phone. Personally, it doesn’t look appealing to me. I don’t even have internet on my phone. Although my 21 and 22 year old sons have purchased ring tones, music, and games but not actually anything on a website.

  7. Will says:

    I’ve made purchases via the Amazon app, but I use my phone exponentially more for price comparisons than actual buying.

  8. The only purchases I make using my phone / Ipod are for things like Amazon or the Apple store where I already have an account with all of my information present. I really don’t see myself taking the time to enter all the information necessary to make a purchase on a phone.
    But; I am near a computer much of the time. Perhaps if I was on the road much of the day or in some other situation where I only had access via my phone for long periods of time, then I might feel differently.
    I think having a store that is viewable via a mobile device is nice, but I certainly would not expect it for smaller companies. If I look up something from Bestbuy or HomeDepot on my phone, I expect it to work. If I look up something from a small retailer, I don’t really expect them to have a mobile version of their page.


  9. Robin Liston says:

    I never make purchases on my phone because I feel it is a security issue. However, I think the big growth in mobile website viewing/purchasing is expected to be in iPads and other tablet computers, iPhones, Blackberries, and other smart phones which nowadays have pretty decent screens.

    CSS 3 and HTML 5 are supposed to make designing a website to look good on all platforms easier. If your existing website was originally designed the optimal way, with the content completely separate from the style markup (CSS stylesheets) it might be easier to make it mobile then you think.

    Two excellent example articles:

    Also, if you have demographic info on your customers, like 90% of your customers are female age 18-30, and you can find some info on mobile users like 75% of people under the age of 30 use their mobile devices to shop then it might be worth your effort to mobilize your website.

    There is also supposed to be software that translates your existing website on the fly for mobile devices, but I don’t know how good that is.

    – Robin

    1. I read that smashing magazine article a while back but didn’t give any thought to it because I didn’t think mobile (as in phone shopping) was going to take off in the near future. Even adjusting CSS and messing around with images etc… takes a tremendous amount of work and you now have to perform verification on 2 different websites even if the content remains the same.

      I think if the percentage of revenue hits 10 percent, I’m going to pull the trigger. The demographic for my store has a wide range but falls into 2 distinct categories, women in their 20’s-early 30’s or 50s-60s. We’ll just have to see.

  10. I really was influenced to comment because having acquired my first smart phone last year I was surprised myself how often I surf the web on my phone. Recently, I would have purchased plane tickets on my phone if it wasn’t so clunky. Last summer a friend chose Zip Car over a competitor whose name I can’t recall because they had a more mobile friendly website. I surf the Internet all the time on my Blackberry when I wake up, on the bus, coming home from work, etc. I divide my time surfing the Internet on the phone and on a computer. If it was easier for me to buy on my phone I would be doing it too. The platforms that other commenters buy from actually make the process easy. So i don’t think its because customers don’t want to buy from their phone its that sellers don’t make it easy.
    It’s possible these mobile purchases were made in a time crunch, which was important for both of my examples above. We needed that ZipCar at that very moment, I wanted to buy tickets before it became more expensive. You cannot always be in front of a computer but you may have to buy something that is time sensitive. The wedding might be in a week but you forgot to order the napkins for example. You’re away from the office and you can’t make it in time to get to a computer to make the shipping constraints in time.
    Remember how you said make the point of entry high? A mobile friendly website might be the thing that makes you stand out from your competitors. Would it also be possible to get an Iphone app in lieu of a whole mobile web site or is that just the same if not more frustration?

  11. Nigel C says:

    Yes sometimes, but only since being a smartphone owner. The worse thing is a mobile site with a different layout so the user can’t find their way round e.g. eBay. I now have my mobile sites setting off, so I get the real site. With pinch & zoom, flick to scroll, etc. it might be better to optimize for mobiles on the same site.

  12. It is simple and easy to create a mobile format website. What you need is simple and easy. Sell targeted product only, and do not have much color , design and wording. Simple would be the best.
    But what we receive is do lot of traffic from mobile search but less conversion rate. Maybe is different business line which our product may need more information.
    But now not only US, even Asia and whole Europe. hand phone online is increase terrible after apple and android is available.

  13. Considering the first fact, I think all business owner get their mobile websites ready for their consumers and explore new sale dynamics.

  14. I think SEO for mobile and desktop website do no have much different, as the basics are same.

  15. Hi Steve C

    Thanks for this great post !

    Mobile version of the eCommerce website is required as most of the shoppers keeps themselves online through their phone. So responsive designs of the ecommerce sites are required to keep the site updated.


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