Appeared In
Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 10/17/2014

When it comes to mobile, it’s time for marketers to put their money where their mouths are. No pun intended.

This story first appeared in the October 17, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Although mobile devices have already gained critical mass as the digital entryway of choice for Millennials and Generation Z, too often brands and retailers are developing their digital presence for desktop first, according to many of the speakers at the WWD Digital Forum held in September in New York.

They do so at their own peril, says Anthony Citrano, vice president of communications for Verizon Digital Media Services, who says that young consumers immediately judge a company by its digital presence. “You have to build for mobile or you’re missing out,” he says. “In the eyes of Millennials, they really do take it personally. If your Web site sucks, you suck.”

That became the most oft-cited quote of the second day, as speaker after speaker hammered home the importance of mobile. As most people know by now, the numbers are compelling and growing exponentially. There are more smartphones in the world than toothbrushes, according to statistics from Razorfish. For every baby born in the world, there are 10 smartphones activated. Just last month, Apple sold more than 10 million iPhone 6 models in its first weekend on counter—and that wasn’t even including China.

But perhaps even more eye-popping, particularly for brand marketers, is that 60 percent of the time users spent on retail Web sites in the second quarter of 2014 was on mobile or tablet devices. “In August, 50 percent of all the traffic to Target and Wal-Mart came from mobile devices,” says Jason Goldberg, vice president of commerce strategy for Razorfish, “yet most [companies] spend millions of dollars and all of their time focusing on desktop experiences.”

Moreover, users on a mobile device are four times less likely to buy something than those who go to a Web site on a desktop or laptop. Razorfish calls this the “mobile gap,” and Goldberg notes that a recent Google study reported that 60 percent of users who start on a mobile platform migrate to a desktop to finish their purchase transaction.

Experts agree that to close the mobile gap, companies need to refocus their efforts and design for this very different platform. The differences between a desktop and mobile go far beyond the obvious one of screen size. “The challenge of mobile is that it’s an entirely new platform with its own unique constraints,” says Jake McGraw, director of technical operations for Refinery29. “Usage patterns are completely different. Typically, people just like to whip out their phone and do something. You really only have seconds to engage with the user.”

Rather than a mobile-responsive approach, in which a Web site’s design or architecture is repurposed for a number of different platforms—desktop, tablet, smartphone, etc.—companies like Abercrombie & Fitch and Refinery29 have evolved to a mobile-optimized approach, meaning each platform has its own architecture. “Mobile is fast becoming the flagship brand experience,” says Billy May, group vice president of Abercrombie & Fitch, who notes that 75 percent of the company’s e-mails are opened on a phone and 90 percent of its consumers sleep—literally sleep—with their phone. To that end, the company embarked on a research project last year to better understand how its shoppers use mobile, and then created a new m-site from the ground up.

What did Abercrombie discover? First, that speed is critical. The average user spends about 1.5 seconds with each picture on Instagram (“That’s not as fast as a sneeze, but close,” says May) and expects a download time of no more than two seconds when she visits a Web site on her mobile browser. The company also learned that mobile content has to tell a story and be put into an overall brand context. “It means modularizing what was a fixed desktop experience, and making snackable moments,” says May. “When we redesigned for mobile, we created a new template with larger images, made the product more heroic and added large-scale buttons—calls to action—because it is simple for a consumer. It meant evolving what we call key looks into more-merchandised collections, which are more immersive, have stronger visual storytelling, a stronger point of view and inspire the consumer to discover as they scroll through the pictures.”

Though the look and feel may be different, the experience for the consumer has to be seamless, regardless of the platform she is using to access a site. David Olsen, global vice president of beauty and grooming for Net-a-porter, reports that mobile has become more popular than expected for beauty. “We’ve seen a significant increase in mobile purchases over the last year,” he says, “and customers expect a seamless experience between devices, from the homepage to the product pages to their path of purchase. We offer consistent checkout. If you’re signed into your account, no matter what device you are on, the contents of your shopping bag and wish list are the same.”

The checkout experience overall is another huge barrier to buying on mobile. Statistics from Razorfish show that every time the number of inputs on the payment page is cut in half, conversion doubles. Amazon reports that entering credit card information on a mobile device is especially odious to consumers, and many mobile wallets, like the much-ballyhooed Apple Pay, aren’t optimized for use on mobile Web browsers.

Savvy marketers are also optimizing the context of where a customer is using a mobile device. “If you’re standing in line at the bank, you need an experience that finishes before you get to the teller,” says Goldberg. “When we look at the big retailers, it’s clear that users come to us at different times of the day with different contexts. The most popular browser on the way to work is the smartphone. During the core work hours, the most popular browser is a desktop or laptop and during prime-time television, it’s a tablet.

“Perfectly intuitive when you think about it,” he continues, “but it’s why the big retailers have different mobile experiences that change depending on what you’re doing. The customer experience that you have on your mobile in store is different if you’re in a Starbucks.”

The move to mobile is being driven by Millennials and Gen Z, each of whom approach digital differently. The former have grown up with digital, while the latter were born with it. As Goldberg says, “They were born expecting this stuff to work.” Gen Z, which already accounts for 25 percent of the U.S. population, he says, is already using on average five screens, a distinction which will soon become irrelevant.

“Frankly,” he says, “you should stop counting screens. There’s going to be too many screens. Every article of clothing they own is going to be a separate Internet of things, connected to the world-wide wealth of knowledge.”

That always-on ethos means marketers are going to have to continually refine, refocus and reassess their understanding of consumer usage patterns in an ever-evolving digital landscape. “This group—they hang out online. They have close friends they’ve never met. They deeply trust people they’ve never met. They love people they’ve never met,” says Citrano. “They trust people they’ve never met for everything from fashion advice to relationship advice. It’s pretty crazy.

“But this is the future,” he concludes. “Either embrace it or die.”

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