The Pros And Cons Of Native Apps And The Mobile Web For Ecommerce

The stack is full…

Every industry eventually faces one crucial question …

Native app or mobile Web?

Four or five years ago, the answer to this question was a no brainer. The apps economy was en vogue and people considered your brand technologically backward if you didn’t have an app.

And then a funny thing happened: companies began to look at—and understand—emerging analytics and consumer behavioral trends. They realized, for instance, that they can get more eyeballs on the mobile Web, but a lot more engagement through an app. The either/or problem was answered in the object of a funnel. The answer to the question of mobile Web or native app became … yes.

The ecommerce and retail sectors, which tend to be a few years behind technological trends, are grappling with this question right now.

The modern Internet is a stack with many levers and levels, tools and toys. Companies that succeed understand their consumers’ behavior and emphasize the right tools and pull the right levers to maximize engagement. The consumer-facing stack these days ranges from the desktop website to the mobile Web, the native or hybrid app, wearables, in-car, television, in stores, bots, voice assistant platforms and soon into virtual and augmented reality. Understanding how your users behave is the key to knowing where to place your technological investments.

The omnichannel is more confusing than ever.

But the basic building blocks remain. The foundation of any digital property is its website and how it handles mobile. So let’s take a look at the advantages of the mobile Web versus apps for ecommerce and retail brands.

The Advantages Of The Mobile Web For Ecommerce

At the recent Internet Retailer Convention and Expo 2017 in Chicago, I heard the same refrain multiple times: “We don’t have an app, we have a responsive mobile site.”

If we were still in 2012, that would have been a very progressive statement.

Responsive design has become the standard for the mobile Web. Instead of building specific mobile websites ( style), companies began building responsive sites that adapt to the screen size of the device accessing it. When Google started prioritizing mobile-optimized sites in mobile search results, one of the things it was looking for was whether or not a site was responsive and easy to navigate on a smartphone. Responsive sites went from being progressive to becoming the standard.

The standardization of responsive websites is a positive development. The era of the mobile specific was painful for both consumers and developers. They were hard to read and difficult to navigate. The user experience was decidedly subpar. Responsive sites, based on the design and functionality of the desktop browser site, are easier to build and a quick fix to the mobile Web question.

Research firm comScore’s 2016 State Of Mobile Apps report notes that mobile websites get more visitors than native apps. But those people spend a lot less time on mobile Websites than they do on apps.

The pros and cons of focusing on a responsive mobile website for retail and ecommerce include the following.


  • Easily indexed by search engines for better search results.
  • More eyeballs than native apps.
  • Easy to design, develop and maintain.
  • A fixed destination for mobile marketing campaigns like advertising and email.
  • Cost effective in terms of building one site and making it responsive as opposed to two sites for the desktop and mobile Web.
  • Better user experience on smartphones than sites.
  • Easier analytics through Google Analytics or other performance trackers.
  • Faster page load performance.


  • Less engagement than native apps.
  • More difficult to get consumers to make purchases on mobile websites.
  • Less customizable and personalized.
  • Less likelihood of tracking signed in loyal customers or converting them to email or social marketing campaigns.
  • Lack of access to smartphone components like GPS, Bluetooth or contacts.

A different report from comScore in the first quarter of 2017 noted that digital commerce is still increasing its share of consumer spend. In the fourth quarter of 2016, more than $109 billion was spent through digital commerce properties. Most of that spend ($86.6 billion) came from desktop browsers. The Web—desktop and mobile—is still very important to retailers as people will often browse on a mobile site and then convert on the easier to use desktop site.

The Power Of The Native App For Ecommerce

The inverse of what is true for retail mobile websites is what is true for native apps. Consumers spend more time in apps and are more engaged. In terms of overall time spent, apps take up 87% of total time spent versus 13% for the mobile Web. In retail specifically, 54% of digital time spent is in apps, up more than 10% from June 2015 to June 2016, according to comScore.

Where apps shine versus the mobile Web comes in the relationship with the customer. Customers who download apps are more likely to sign in, store payment credentials and opt in to loyalty programs and offers. People that download retail or ecommerce apps are more likely to have their identity attached, which means you can track their behavior and offer them more personalized services.

The greatest benefits of apps for ecommerce and retail reside in two functions: push notifications and the digital-physical divide.

Push notifications can help get a person’s attention, straight on their smartphone home screen. A very good example of the intelligent use of push notifications in ecommerce is how Amazon uses them in its app for the annual Amazon Prime Day. Amazon sends push notifications for deals and contests and alerts of popular items that are about to go on sale on Prime Day.

For retailers, smartphones are critical in the bridging the digital and physical. Apps can help customers order ahead and pick up in store, which has found a distinct use recently in the food and beverage industry with brands like Shake Shack and Starbucks. In retail stores, smartphone apps can provide payments and loyalty alerts and can connect to a retailer’s Wi-Fi or Bluetooth beacons to track a person’s movements around the store.

The pros and cons of native apps for retail and commerce include:


  • Authenticating the identity of a customer.
  • Better behavioral tracking through identity.
  • Push notifications for alerts, deals and loyalty.
  • Higher engagement from more loyal customers.
  • Better conversion with stored account and payment credentials.
  • Higher quality user experience and personalization.
  • The bridge between digital and physical through smartphone hardware like Bluetooth.


  • Smaller audience reach.
  • Less accessible to search results without implementing deep linking (which is usually tied to a website anyway).
  • More expensive to design and develop, requiring two different versions (iOS and Android) that need to be frequently updated through the App Store and Google Play.

The Stack And The Funnel

The data point from comScore that shows 79.2% of digital commerce was done from the desktop in the fourth quarter of 2016 is poignant.

In physical retail and ecommerce, sales are the only goal. The one true outcome. Other metrics that apps tend to use such as sessions, time spent, engagement, click through rates etc. can inform sales and conversions, but are extraneous to the primary objective.

To optimize for sales, it is important to know how users behave. The data tells us that people will often browse on their smartphones through the mobile Web or an app and then go to the desktop site (or the store) to make the actual purchase. And yet, every channel that retailers touch their customers should be a potential sales vehicle. The goal is not to push people towards the property with the highest conversion rate, but to rather optimize every channel for conversion. That means making product discovery, shopping cart additions and payments easy through each channel.

At the same time, make it simple for customers to switch channels. If they are going to find a product through the mobile Web, make it seamless to add products to the cart on the smartphone and then switch to desktop or an app to checkout.

The Blurring Lines Between The Mobile Web And Apps

If responsive Web design was cutting edge in 2012, then Progressive Web Apps are what astute developers are focusing on in 2017.

A Progressive Web App is a website that is designed to … progressively become an app. Progressive Web Apps, which have responsive properties as well, promise much faster page load times and content retrieval. Like native apps, Progressive Web Apps can be pinned to a home screen and send push notifications. Google partnered with several ecommerce sites to make Progressive Web Apps, including Flipkart. Other good examples of ecommerce Progressive Web Apps include Jumia Travel and Redkart.

If Progressive Web Apps are the mobile Web coming closer to native apps, then Android Instant Apps are the other way around. Android Instant Apps are modular pieces of an app that people can find when browsing a mobile website that provide native app functionality. Basically, developers can break their apps into pieces and make them individually loadable to the user without having to download the entire app from Google Play.

Want to see more like this?
Dan Rowinski
Former ARC Editor-in-Chief at Applause
Reading time: 5 min

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