Mobile technology is advancing at such a rate that it can be difficult for retailers to know where to spend their money. Many face a difficult dilemma: is it better to invest in a mobile-optimised site or native mobile apps?

Of course it does not help that there is no definitive answer on the matter. Research carried out last year by comScore suggested that 88% of smartphone activity was around apps. However, a more recent Harris poll conducted for IAB found that just 18% of smartphone users prefer apps.

With the solution being far from black and white, spending precious resources on a mobile-friendly website seems like a good option. It is easier, quicker and more cost effective to develop and maintain compared to mobile apps and it allows retailers to reach a wider audience, as well as forming part of a successful SEO strategy. Furthermore, it cannot be deleted and does not require a user to download it.

At the same time, mobile apps have their own strengths which can greatly enhance the user experience. The graphics and functionality are immediate, engaging and can push notifications to users at specific times or locations. Retailers can also access more user data and crucially, customers do not always need to be connected to the internet to use them.

There is no doubt that apps can be popular but the majority are transient. Research by Forrester shows that smartphone owners use an average of 24 apps per month, but spend more than 80% of their time on just five of those apps. Typically, an app is only active for around 30 days which poses the key challenge – how can retailers make their app one of those that stays on the home screen and remains in constant use?

When it comes to choosing a mobile website or app, I don't think of the two as being in competition other than fighting for the same resource. Instead, they should sit together as complementary tools serving different purposes.

Mobile websites equip retailers with a brand presence, delivering up-to-date content that can be found and shared quickly and easily. Apps come into their own when the user wants to have a closer relationship with the retailer and this can be enhanced further with tailored messages. It might take place during an intense time frame, perhaps over a single campaign, and involve an element of gamification.

Put simply, mobile websites are best for accessing information while apps are effective for action-oriented use. To my mind, building a strong, mobile-optimised site is where money should be invested first. But after this, apps should be ignored at a retailer's peril. Apps capitalise on a shopper's desire for a personalised service and provide a fun vehicle to boost engagement.

With shoppers now hooked on a constant diet of promotions, apps can also alert them to the latest deal or to price test in-store offers. As millennials and Generation Z rapidly become the mainstay of retail sales, while Apple Pay and its competitors become a mainstream payment channel, so the power of apps will grow even more.

The secret of a successful app is all about remaining relevant in the user's daily life in a way that makes it more convenient than the alternatives. For instance, the successful airline apps offer relevant information and rewards to customers on an ongoing basis.

But while relevance is fundamental, the best apps are also creative and fun. What is trending now will not be in 12 months or less, which leads to a conundrum: using apps to stay top of the leaderboard and sustain relationships with ever-more fickle customers requires expertise and serious commitment. At the same time, when margins are being seriously stress-tested, this is not a welcome proposition for any retailer, either in the food or non-food sector.

My advice to retailers is to stick to what they do well which is offering top-notch products and service at competitive prices in pleasant surroundings to customers whose behaviour and preferences they truly know. Marketing departments and agencies need to work hand-in-hand to convey passion for their products and maintain that all-important relevance to customers.

Dr Tim Denison, director of retail intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance, will be writing a regular Essential Retail column on in-store technology and the wider retail landscape.

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