Why you shouldn’t build a mobile app, despite recent user trends

A few weeks ago, I went to the mCommerce Exchange in Las Vegas, put on by this Exchange Network. I sat in a room for 2 days with Marketing and Mobile Directors from some of the country’s largest and most profitable retailers. Every one of them was dealing with the same issue.

Should we create a native mobile shopping experience for customers?

At the end of Day 1, after being barraged by information from vendors and “experts” in mobile technology and trends, a tall 40-something Argentinian man with a ton of spunk got up and started his presentation by saying, “You don’t NEED a mobile app!” You could almost hear the sigh of relief from the attendees. It was as though they were being held hostage by a 300 lb. Yetee, and someone just told them the Yetee was simply their imagination. Shear relief.

Is a mobile app right for us?

I work for an eCommerce company. We sell everything on our website. Yes, it’s mobile optimized, and soon it will be a responsive “mobile-first” site. Our online store is our only source of revenue. No brick & mortar locations. No mobile app. No physical presence in the world.

Like most of the conference attendees, we too have been exploring the benefits of having a mobile app for customers to use to purchase our products. As we continue to explore the pros and cons, I keep coming back to the question, “Is this what our customers want?” To answer that question, I have to do some research (one of my favorite parts of the job).

The insane growth of mobile app usage

I think when it comes to user behavior, people are split on the subject of retail mobile shopping. Roughly half of the mobile users I’ve spoken with would prefer to have the information readily available to them via a native app. The other half would rather navigate to a site and save the space on their phone. But will that 50/50 split continue, or will the app-advocates eventually overtake and consume the others like T-Rex?

Flurry Analytics does a ton of market research and analytics when it comes to mobile user behavior. They recently published a study that compared mobile user behavior from Q1 2014 with behavior from just a year ago. People are gleaning information from the study and blasting their interpretations all over the interweb.

The study shows that mobile users are spending more time using apps vs. the mobile web. Which really doesn’t surprise me when I think about my own usage: music and video streaming, maps, social networking, games, banking, etc. So the question has to be asked, “What apps are people using?”

Flurry found that users spend the majority of their mobile time Gaming (32%) and Social Networking (28%). That’s 60% of their mobile usage. As it pertains to my industry (eCommerce Retail), it wasn’t even on the list!

Then I came across this post, which quotes another study from Flurry Analytics which compares 2013 app usage to 2012. According to it, overall app usage was up 115% year-over-year. This time they included a “Lifestyle & Shopping” category, which grew 77% from 2012 to 2013. My first reaction was, “Wow. Obviously people want to use a mobile app for shopping.” But the category isn’t just shopping, but lifestyle too. And this statistic doesn’t take into account the increase in available shopping apps. Obviously if Macy’s pushes out a mobile app, a good percentage of people are going to try it out over the mobile web experience.

What do we measure?

According to a study by Statista in July 2013, 62% of UK retailers offered an iPhone app. That seems like a ton, but it still doesn’t convince me. Of theprojected 118 million mobile shoppers in the US, what I want to know is how many of them used a retailer’s native mobile app to 1) browse products and 2) purchase a product on the app. Knowing those statistics would help retailers further understand the cost-benefit analysis of creating a native mobile app for customers.

In addition to that, downloads aren’t enough. Matthew Ferry of Artisan Mobile led a great discussion helping leaders identify what their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) would be if they developed a mobile app. We are after engagement, not just downloads. How long are people spending on our app, and is it because they enjoy it, or because they can’t find what they are looking for? How often do people interact with the app through saving products to their wishlist, writing reviews, or making a purchase?


Esteban Kolsky said, “You don’t NEED a mobile app.” He didn’t say not to create one, he just said that you don’t necessarily need one. And the largest determining factor is your users.

All of these studies and all of these statistics explain one thing: No one knows what’s best for my company. No one. I can read all the statistics and compile all the quantitative data that’s available, but that still won’t answer the question for me. Only my users can answer that.

The 12th level of Product User Research Experience Analysis

I was speaking with a Mobile Retail Director for Toys R Us and I asked him if they had a mobile app. Here was his response:

No, I don’t think we need one. Most of our customers only shop with us a few times a year. Why would we develop a mobile app for them to download once and then forget about, or worse yet, delete after they’re done using it once? It just doesn’t make sense for us.

He’s right, it doesn’t make sense. He knows his customer and their behaviors. And despite what all the studies and so-called experts are saying, he has decided a mobile app is not what his customers are asking for.

There are a million benefits for my company to have a mobile app. But those are all OUR benefits. Now that we’ve established the potential growth in customer engagement and sales, next we have to get out of the building to figure out if this is what our customers want. They will be the ultimate decision-maker on this issue.

High-ho Silver!

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