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Do eCommerce Retailers Need Native Mobile Applications

Once upon a time, building a website that provided a responsive and intuitive eCommerce experience was next to impossible for all but the simplest stores. Today’s web is different. Many of us use desktop-class applications in our browsers every day. Browsers are faster than ever before, especially where JavaScript is concerned, and the web platform itself benefits from improved client and server side technology and developer-friendly frameworks.

And yet, I often hear eCommerce merchants debating the benefits of native applications.

Native applications sound like something eCommerce merchants that reach a certain size should invest in. Native applications are faster than web applications, and they’re likely to stay that way until WebAssembly enters mainstream use. Native applications can take advantage of device hardware that is clumsy or impossible to access on the web.

However, with some exceptions I’ll discuss later, native applications are typically not a good investment for eCommerce retailers.

The most important argument against building a native application for eCommerce retail is that the majority of customers won’t use it. Studies have shown that shoppers prefer to interact with eCommerce stores on the web — they prefer to locate stores, read product reviews, make purchases, and check order statuses on the web. Theoretically, a properly designed native application could provide a marginally better shopping experience, but there’s plenty of evidence that it’s not what shoppers want.

Look at the home screen of your iOS or Android phone. How many shopping applications do you have installed? For most consumers, the answer is none, and even dedicated shoppers are selective about the shopping applications they install.

Given that most shoppers prefer the web, is a native app really the best investment? A bespoke native application is expensive to build and manage, and it adds a huge amount of complexity to development, especially if the retailer wants to create an app that is available on all the major mobile platforms.

It makes sense to focus development work on a single codebase, a responsive web application that works everywhere from the desktop to the smartphone. The modern web has access to many of the same capabilities as native applications via browser APIs, including push notifications. The gap between what’s possible on the web and in native applications is shrinking rapidly.

Although I don’t think building a parallel native eCommerce application is the best use of a retailer’s time and money, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for native applications in eCommerce. Leading eCommerce brands use native apps to raise consumer awareness and for content marketing. Fashion brand Miu Miu created a music app to showcase fashion show excerpts and a custom soundtrack. Paul Smith released Paul Smith Dino Jumper, a retro platform game. An app from Hermés demonstrates all the ways its customers might wear their scarves and ties.

The creative use of native applications can boost brand awareness, but there’s little point duplicating a web store as a native app — let each platform play to its strengths and user-base.

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