Why Debenhams is betting on progressive web apps

The name, it should be pointed out, is slightly misleading as progressive web apps (PWAs) are technically not apps. Rather, they are websites that use non-standard web technology to deliver a much faster experience on a mobile browser or hybrid app. They rely on pre-caching content on a device (with permission) to speed things up.

This is cutting-edge technology. So cutting edge, in fact, that retailer implementations are few and far between. “The Washington Post and Financial Times examples are the most powerful I've seen. I'm not aware of retailers in the US doing this, though Flipkart has done it in India,” says Ted Schadler, VP & principal analyst at Forrester.

In the UK, meanwhile, Shop Direct, something of a mobile pioneer, has yet to climb onboard. Sally-Anne Newson, customer experience and digital product director at Shop Direct, comments: “It’s still early days for progressive apps, but it’s something we’re keeping a close eye on.”

The new Debenhams site lines up alongside BBC, Twitter and the Guardian’s Smart Lock as one of the first PWAs in the country. The retailer reports unprecedented growth in mobile over the last two years. Over half of all its online visits are now from mobile phones. But as traffic shifts from desktop to mobile, this starts to impact growth as customers do not convert as well on the latter. According to Google research, Britain was 10th out of 17 major European countries surveyed in terms of how quickly sites load on mobile – 53% of visits are abandoned if a mobile site takes three seconds or more to load. And if you keep customers waiting for one second to five seconds, the probability of them bouncing spikes by 90%.

Tapping Google-backed technology and delivered by Mobify and SapientRazorfish, the Debenhams PWA has more than doubled the speed of the previous mobile site, the retailer claims. “We were able to invest in our previous adaptive m-site but found that we couldn’t make some of the larger experience enhancements our customers found frustrating, like the site being slow,” says Jim Hingston, senior digital product manager at Debenhams. “The site itself was built using end of life technology so we needed to transform our mobile propostion. Many retailers have a responsive site, but the problem with this approach is you cannot be mobile first as you have to build an experience that fits three to four different devices or screen sizes; you end up having to trade off your mobile customers.”

The new site went live in early October and is already delivering results, putting Debenhams in a strong position ahead of peak trading.

“There has been a double digit growth in our conversion so far,” says Hingston. “The speed is by far the most noticeable improvement, we’ve seen customers are able to complete some journeys over three times faster than the previous site. We are starting to see some behavioural shifts on mobile too like more mobile orders starting to occur in the morning during ‘commuter periods’. Customers are able to browse and buy instead of just browse.” 

Native apps stay in the game

Although there are various reasons for the shift toward PWAs, many customers still like and are comfortable with native apps. “I believe that there will always be a place for native apps, for the applications that are most important to you,” says Forrester’s Schadler. “But what about all those applications that aren't? We spend the most time in just a few apps. And they are seldom retail sites. And non-loyal customers of other brands will almost never use an app. So to reach them, you need to deliver app-like experiences via the browser. Responsive web design, which most companies and the agencies that support them have treated as a one-size-fits-all solution, is not solving the problem on desktops or phones.”

Hingston agrees, saying: “Apps have historically given a superior experience but research shows that customers only use a small number regularly. A PWA allows for features like push notifications and offline mode which means customers will get more comfortable with mobile web.The reach of mobile web is far greater and technology like PWA will start to shrink the gap between web and app experiences.”

Like Schadler, he doesn’t, however, think PWAs will cause a mass shift away from apps as there are jobs and tasks that customers will always prefer to do on an app. “For Debenhams, investing in a PWA and improving the mobile web journeys made sense from how our customers were shopping Debenhams.”

The initial PWA launch was, meanwhile, just the start of the retailer’s mobile journey. “We have an extensive roadmap to start removing further friction and enhancing the experience across our key categories. Our partnership with Mobify and SapientRazorfish will allow us to work with a lot more pace and agility. We can make the experience even faster with further performance optimisations and features like accelerated mobile pages. We also want to start to look at whether we can extend our PWA beyond mobile onto other customer and colleague platforms.”