Smartphones have won the m-commerce war but tablets still count

samsung holiday shopping

Picture courtesy Samsung

This is it, the moment retail changes forever. The tablet revolution is ending and smartphones are now the top driver of sales and e-traffic for US retail companies. Tablets didn’t have it their way for long (the iPad only launched in April 2010) but their days on top have gone.

Who says so? The State of Retailing Online 2016 report, featuring research conducted by, Forrester and Bizrate Insights.

Basically, the growing use of smartphones by consumers, better and bigger phones, and retailers finally getting the omnichannel message have all combined to put smartphones in the lead as a percentage of both online sales and traffic.

Retailers surveyed for the report said smartphone sales accounted for 17% of their total online sales in 2015, edging ahead of the 14% generated via tablets. Smartphones also accounted for 29% of visitor traffic while tablets accounted for 15%.

Overall, retailers said sales from smartphone devices grew 53% year-on-year, while tablets grew 32%.

Picture courtesy

Digging deeper

But hang on a minute, let’s look at those figures a bit more closely because what they don’t suggest is that retailers should focus only on smartphones.

For one thing, it appears that 69% of e-sales still come from laptop and desktop computers. It also appears that the correlation between browsing and buying on a tablet is quite close, while many smartphone browsers don’t buy on their device but go on to buy either in-store or on larger-screen computers/tablets.

So there’s still a strong need to invest in development for all forms of online retail. Traditional computers and tablets mustn’t be neglecte,d while smartphone apps and websites need to be able to convert more browsers to buyers.

Unfortunately, many retailers don’t seem to have got this particular message. The research showed that:

  • 30 percent of those surveyed invested less than $10,000 on smartphone platforms in 2015 with another 17% keeping budgets at $10,000 to $50,000.
  • When it came to tablets, investment was even smaller. Nearly four in 10 (37%) said they made no additional investment in their tablet offerings in 2015, compared to the 18% who left smartphones out of their investment plans entirely for 2015.
  • A small 11% of retailers surveyed put $10,000 to $50,000 into tablet investments last year.

Of course, in some cases, a small investment is all that’s needed to radically transform the shopping experience on a small screen. But the number of retailers who don’t see the need for ongoing investment is worrying.

Contrast that with the experience of a retailer like John Lewis in the UK whose online investment overall is huge and who saw 40% of sales coming via the online channel in the festive season, with combined smartphone and tablet sales up 31%.

iPad used in Nordstrom, picture courtesy

Better news ahead?

Fortunately, the report did find that more mobile investment is on the horizon for retailers and smartphones are where they’ve earmarked this investment.

  • One-third of retailers surveyed plan to grow their smartphone investments more than 20% in 2016, and another 34% will grow their investments between 1% and 20% (1%? Really?).
  • One in five (22%) will grow their tablet investment more than 20% in 2016.

So do tablets get more of look-in than this? Well, the report said they may ultimately find a bigger purpose in stores, helping store associates provide greater service to customers.

The survey found that of the 36% who use mobile devices in stores, one-quarter of those use tablets. Two in five (44%) say their associates use tablets to show additional products not available in stores and four in 10 use the devices to send e-receipts; 23% use them to check inventory in warehouses and 21% use tablets to check their actual in-store inventory.

So there it is, the brave new world where smartphones are becoming ever-more-important and sales associates with tablets at the ready are more than just a gimmick. Welcome to 2016…

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