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In the debate over mobile websites versus native apps, native app detractors frequently make a seemingly good point: there are just too many native apps, so you can't expect consumers to install and use yours.
For companies hoping customers and potential customers, that assumption has a significant implication: if your mobile strategy is native app-centric and you don't have a mobile-friendly website, you might be missing out on the mobile opportunity.
But interesting data released last week by mobile analytics firm Flurry suggests that the barriers to mobile app adoption, including app clutter, aren't impeding retailers from growing adoption of their mobile apps.
In looking at a variety of shopping apps available through the Apple App Store and Google Play, Flurry discovered that time spent in apps offered by retailers such as Walmart, Macy's and Saks 5th Avenue surged by a whopping 525% between December 2011 and December 2012.
That surge now means that consumers are spending more time in retailer apps than in apps in any other single shopping category. In December 2011, consumers spent more time in apps in other categories, like marketplaces and daily deals. But this past December, with 27% of time in shopping apps being spent in retailer apps, retailers took the lead.
Native apps: an important omnichannel asset?
Why would anyone ever download the Target app? Who would use a Victoria's Secret app? A year or two ago, such questions seemed legitimate and, in many cases, reasonable answers appeared to be lacking.
But retailers like Lowe's are increasingly savvy and are proving that it is possible to offer substantial value through mobile apps -- enough value to convince consumers that they should take the time to download, install and use them. As Flurry's Simon Kalaf notes:
Consumers can be intercepted in store aisles and even on their way to the cash register. There are apps to scan an item, select size and color, and then have it shipped to your home... Apps are connected to credit cards and can have shipping info on file.
Put simply, retailers that are willing to put some thought into the app experience may find that that their apps can support compelling omnichannel experiences that increase convenience and boost customer satisfaction.
An app-less future?
Despite the fact that consumers are spending significantly more time using retailer mobile apps, the question remains: will the web eventually make mobile apps a passing fad? Obviously, retailers shouldn't bet on it right now, even if that bet proves to be the correct one eventually. Flurry's data shows that retailers can gain traction with mobile apps and the momentum is likely to continue.
But as retailers develop and polish the experiences they offer through their mobile websites, they should note lessons learned from their native apps. Mobile devices and browsers are getting more capable all the time, and the techniques by which compelling HTML5 mobile experiences can be developed are becoming more widely known. This means one thing: at some point, retailers will likely be able to support native levels of functionality and user experience through their mobile websites.
That means that those which have taken advantage of consumer willingness to engage through native apps will be best positioned to extend their success to the mobile web too.