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Retailers must have tablet-first Web experiences in post-PC world

Revenues are growing at faster rate on tablets than smartphones

While tablet-driven sales were strong during the 2013 holiday shopping season, they could have been even higher if it were not for the fact that retailers continue to underinvest in tablet strategies, particularly when it comes to device-specific Web sites.

Retailers have made important gains over the past year in delivering tablet applications that meet the needs of these shoppers.  However, as sales of tablets begin to eclipe PC sales, retailers are hurting their chances to convert browsers into purchasers by delivering sites built for PCs first.

“It’s still early days in terms of retailers making the investment in tablet-optimized shopping experiences that are distinct from laptop or smartphone versions, but those that do are likely to see outsized returns,” said Jason Goldberg, Chicago-based vice president of the commerce practice at Razorfish.

Growing traffic, commerce
Tablets have proved to churn out significant amounts of commerce despite the seemingly low investments that marketers are pouring into device-specific sites. However, retailers must hone in on Web content curated for tablet users for the momentum to keep going.

While certain brands such as Nike are developing specific content for tablet sites, other retailers are still pouring more money into tablet applications.

In IBM’s data from Christmas Day, tablets generated 19.4 percent of all online sales. Smartphones accounted for 9.3 percent of online sales.

Not only is the share of online transactions moving towards tablets, but these users are also spending more.

In IBM’s findings, tablet users averaged an order value of $95.61 compared to smartphone users with a $85.11 average order.

Despite the increase in tablet conversions, most of these visits are coming from work and home locations, the same as where laptop visits are coming from, making it difficult for retailers to track.

Additionally, tablet users have the same behaviors as desktop users and are looking for the same type of information as PC consumers.

“So most retailers don’t view tablets as a mobile visit at all,” Mr. Goldberg said. “Many retailers see visits and sales from tablets as replacing laptop visits rather than incremental new customers.”

Optimized experiences?
Since retailers view tablet and desktop users similarly, many have basically tweaked their Web sites so that they are tolerable on a tablet. Further supporting this strategy is the fact that many PCs are now being designed with touch screens that encourage consumers to swipe their fingers across a screen instead of using a keyboard.

As a result, retailers are cutting out hover overs and making buttons bigger, but these experiences still lack some of the tablet-specific features for stronger mobile experiences.

Retailers are missing out on creating great tablet experiences by not differentiating them from PC experiences.

For example, the typical fold is a big area for retailers to take advantage of via a tablet.

Retailers traditionally try to make the most of their merchandising and marketing efforts above the top part of a Web site — or a fold — where consumers initially view a retailer’s inventory.

However, this top-of-page merchandising should be completely different on a tablet than a PC because of how tablets can be viewed in either portrait or landscape mode.

Additionally, the growth in different-sized tablets continues to grow, making it difficult for retailers to know how to design a site.

For example, a color swatch button may appear big on a ten-inch tablet but could be difficult to use for a consumer on an eight-inch tablet.

Applying app learnings
Although retailers have slacked in creating tablet-optimized sites, marketers have embraced tablet apps significantly in the past year with some unique features.

Gilt and Amazon are two examples of best-in-class tablet apps.

Gilt’s iPad app is merchandised differently than smartphone apps to play up stronger visuals and browsing (see story).

Amazon is king when it comes to mobile search, which is heavily evidenced in its iPad app.

Amazon’s Zappos also features a specific design for the tablet with an option that lets consumers view items in a 360 degrees and earn reward points.

Unlike tablet-optimized sites, these apps are catered towards specific browsing and shopping patterns, which retailers could benefit strongly from.

As more retailers see an uptick in tablet-driven sales, marketers are learning that mobile does not work with separate tablet and smartphone strategies.

“It’s the same learning that retailers have known since they opened their first store: Location, location, location,” said Nikki Baird, Denver-based managing partner at RSR Research.

“If you want to be successful in retail, you need to be where your shoppers are,” she said. “And that increasingly means tablet, too.”