Media & Technology Tuesday: Mobile isn't necessarily mobile

Last week, in his third guest post on our blog, Harvard’s Prof. Sunil Gupta discussed the ways in which ecommerce is transforming retail, and the way mobile is transforming ecommerce.

He pointed out that “Mobile ecommerce traffic reached a new high over the 2014 holiday season; 47.6% of the total.” And this browsing preference is already manifest in transactional data – 2014’s Black Friday saw mobiles and tablets reach around a third of ecommerce spending.

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Mobile = tablet + mobile, but they’re very different things

But stats like this hide evolving usage patterns. Bundling tablet and mobile traffic and transacting together under the label ‘mobile’ is misleading – online behaviour changes significantly with screen size, and people browse and spend differently on mobiles than on tablets.

Browsing is easier on a larger screen, and transacting on a mobile is easier in the ‘walled garden’ of an app – even when compared to a mobile-optimised site. As Prof. Gupta wrote elsewhere on our blog, consumers exhibit a clear preference for app-based shopping, cementing the position of incumbent online retail giants.

Luxury online travel agent Destinology, which was acquired by Saga Plc. last year [ link ], has taken advantage of this, recognising that few consumers are likely to book a luxury holiday entirely online, and certainly not from a mobile. Instead its site is optimised for tablet browsing, with calls to action encouraging consumers to speak directly to well-informed agents.

Mobile ≠ mobile

But if the term mobile is stretched to include tablets, it also doesn’t even mean mobile – Ofcom data shows that only 10% of internet use on mobiles is “only” or “mainly” outside the home, with 24% or two and a half times that level “mainly at home” – and 66% of respondents citing “both at home and outside.” Mobile no longer refers to the location of the activity, but to the form factor of the device.

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Given the rapid rise of smartphone and tablet use in enormous and rapidly-developing markets like China, many consumers are bypassing desktop computers entirely – in much the same way some developing countries bypassed fixed-line telephony and leap-frogged to mobile.

Meanwhile, most social media activity in the developing world is carried out through SMS from feature phones, rather than on smartphones, desktops and tablets. How to keep track and account for ‘online’ activity of this sort?

Even within the more developed economies, changing user behaviour might see a purchase start with in-store browsing, see chosen items scanned into the basket of a mobile app, and checkout taking place later, at home, on a desktop or tablet.

Both the technologies and consumer behaviour are evolving so quickly that the categories we use to analyse traffic and transacting online will need to change too.

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