Native mobile apps and the mobile web are often pitted against each other and discussed interchangeably. Native apps are dead! Mobile web is dead! Responsive design is dead! These hyperbolic proclamations fail to recognize an important reality: mobile apps and the mobile web are both valuable, just for very different uses. Moreover, using these two technologies together enables the best experiences, more so than using any individual one would afford.
This is especially true in fashion and retail. Mobile retail shopping apps offer better commerce experiences over time, with the added familiarity of the app becoming "yours" as it learns your preferences and remembers pesky details such as payment and shipping information. But native apps challenge consumer adoption right out of the gate. A shopper encounters an immense amount of friction when she goes about downloading an app. The chances of a customer going from initially connecting with a brand to downloading an app are slim without nurturing the relationship.
This is where the mobile web comes into play. It's frictionless nature is especially suited for building brand awareness and enabling discovery. Navigating to a web page is universally easier than going to the app store, searching for the app, putting in your password and then waiting for the app to download, assuming your data plan allows it. The mobile web, conversely, takes seconds to navigate, query and load.
Using the mobile web in tandem with retail shopping apps unlocks a much better overall experience for customers, which should always be the ultimate goal. This has often gotten lost in the fight to crown one technology the winner.
The mobile web is best suited for discovery and research. This could mean checking out a product you just saw on social, browsing a sale, or following up on a product recommendation from a friend. These light use cases make the web the preferred medium, since it requires the user to exert very little effort to get to their destination. It might take a few taps, maybe a Google search, and seconds later the customer is where she wants to be.
Early on in the customer's relationship with the brand, this scenario might repeat itself a few times. Then, if the customer is showing some purchase intent, it might make sense for her to download an app, where she can easily navigate checkout and track the order. Tools like Apple Pay, login with Facebook and other easy ways to create accounts and checkout make buying products through an app a much better experience.
Even so, downloading an app might not make sense until after a customer's first purchase. A customer might prefer the ease of the mobile web early on, but as she continues to build a relationship with a brand, she might opt for the app. Given the friction associated with apps, brands are best positioned to use it as a tool for loyalty and retention, rather than something to throw at every customer. If a brand gets a lot of people to download an app who don't have a strong connection with the brand, retention will suffer and these users will delete the app soon enough. Luckily, using the mobile web to help spark the relationship and then following up with the app can mitigate these retention issues.
Recent advancements from Google, such as app streaming and Android Instant Apps, attempt to close the gap between the two technologies. App streaming allows an Android user to pull up a live version of an app from a Google search and use the app as if it was downloaded on her phone. Instant Apps allow Android developers to modularize their app so users can instantly download relevant sections of an app with little effort, and use them as if they were natively downloaded.
While these advances look promising, it's unclear if they fundamentally change the dichotomy between native apps and the mobile web. If anything, they continue to blur the lines between the two technologies, in a good way, but don't negate the need for either. This will likely help developers with customer acquisition, making the customer's shift from discovery to purchase easier, which in turn is better for developers. But the fundamental idea the apps and the web solve different but related problems remains. It's worth noting Apple has yet to announce anything for iOS, and is less likely to do so, given Google's reliance on the web, not on apps, to make their lucrative search revenue. Additionally, app streaming and Instant Apps are Android only, which limits their impact, especially since avid shoppers tend to prefer iPhones.
Approaching the mobile web and retail shopping apps in tandem will lead to the best commerce experiences. Although the hyperbolic debate about each technology battling the other gets the tech press excited, the reality remains that different use cases call for different technologies. The one benefit of this catfight is that it's encouraging companies to keep innovating on their respective technologies, which is better for everyone. So the question is: Apps or the mobile web? The answer is both.
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