Smartphones remain a crucial tool for retailers looking to influence shoppers’ paths through malls and stores, but it’s tablets that are quickly gaining the stronger grip on consumer spending.

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

According to the 2012 Mobile Commerce Survey set to be released by the National Retail Federation’s division and Forrester Research today, 137 million U.S. consumers own smartphones that collectively accounted for just 1.5 percent of sales on the Web last year. Meanwhile, less than half the number of consumers, 61 million, own tablets but they generated more than twice the percentage of sales last year — 3.2 percent.

Furthermore, among 55 online retailers with and without brick-and-mortar stores, tablets are driving sales that are comparable to those made in stores. The average order value on tablets was $159.28 versus $134.37 on smartphones and on par with in-store purchases. The site conversion rate for tablets was 2.4 percent versus 1 percent for mobile phones. Repeat customer rates were identical, 29 percent, while tablets yielded a lower “shopping cart abandonment rate” of 62 percent versus 69 percent for smartphones.

“We expect smartphone shopping adoption rates to stay low but fully believe tablet sales will continue to change how retailers garner the attention of new and current customers,” said Vicki Cantrell, executive director of and senior vice president, communities, at NRF.

The report hardly paints a bleak picture for smartphone commerce. Mobile phones’ percentage of e-commerce is projected to rise 1 point a year, with its 2 percent share last year translating into $6 billion in U.S. retail sales and its anticipated 3 percent share this year translating into $10 billion. This is expected to put smartphone commerce at 7 percent of total e-commerce in 2016, or $31 billion, implying overall e-commerce volume of over $440 billion.

The survey included interviews with multichannel retailers, Internet pure-plays and manufacturers with online direct-to-consumer businesses.

Cantrell noted that the study showed a growing divergence between the ways in which tablets and smartphones are used. When asked to identify methods of mobile marketing they employ, exactly three-quarters of the retail respondents listed quick-response codes or other barcode scanning, more than any other use. The second, third and fourth most popular activities were all tied to smartphones — smartphone paid search campaigns (at 55 percent), mobile e-mail optimization (52 percent) and mobile display ad campaigns (41 percent). Next came tablet paid search campaigns at 39 percent.

“Smartphones aren’t going away,” Cantrell told WWD. “They’re what people carry with them. Maybe the mobile phone becomes the next big promotional tool.”

In fact, QR and barcodes were ranked first by retailers with sales of less than $10 million and those with sales of $100 million or more and were second in popularity for retailers in the $10 million to $100 million range, behind only mobile e-mail optimization.

“There’s a more clear line separating tablets and mobile phones now,” she noted. “The visual nature of the tablet and the rising popularity of Pinterest, which is itself so visual, is making retailers open their eyes to Pinterest-commerce. People used to sit on the couch with their laptops. Now they take their tablets to bed with them because that’s where they’ve got their books. We could find ourselves moving from couch-commerce to bed-commerce.”

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