Comment: Tablet computing vital to rise of online retail

The UK’s first secure online shopping transaction (eCommerce) occurred in 1995. Since then online sales have grown continuously surrounded by a hysteria about how this growth will wipe out the high street. You could barely avoid the plethora of excited statistics extolling the phenomenal growth of eCommerce. More recently online shopping has been rapidly transitioning to mobile devices as the consumer ownership of mobile and tablet devices continues apace.

The excitement surrounding eCommerce has been rapidly replaced by a new eagerness to represent the stellar growth and potential from the meteoric rise in mobile device ownership. There are now more mobile devices in the UK than people! Over half of UK mobile phone owners have a smartphone and over 20% of us own a tablet device.

The growth of eCommerce had many challenges for retailers to overcome: integration of this new channel with the rest of the retail business, additional new and more complicated delivery mechanisms, cardholder not present payments, presentation of the retailers shop window onto consumer devices.

Those challenges have largely been overcome and even though the new mobile world comes with many more device types, operating systems, window sizes, delivery customisation options and payment types, the implications on the retailer are better prepared for.

The more pressing challenge now is how to deliver a seamless and high quality customer experience that enhances brand value, drives incremental sales and loyalty.

Interestingly, with smartphones outnumbering tablets by 250%, apparently websites get more mobile traffic from tablet users than they do smartphones. People browse through 70% more web pages per visit when browsing on a tablet as opposed to a smartphone and conversion rates on tablets are three times greater than on smartphones. So it’s clear to see why the rise in tablet computing is so critical to the continued rise of online sales.

Also, the game has changed. Brand attractiveness and online growth is being driven by success in the social media and advertising space. This is seen in stark contrast at this time of year by the significant spend on TV and media advertising that is replicated across all of the social media channels and that seems to predict the peak success of a retailer based on the social acceptance of its Christmas adverts.

However, we shouldn’t lose site of the fact that online sales still only account for just over 10% of all UK retail sales. Roughly one in five of these online sales is now performed on a mobile device. It’s all very well to get hysteric about continuous quarter on quarter double percentage sales growth but it’s relatively easy to keep significant sales growth when you start from a low base.

I don’t want to diminish the importance to retail and the wider economy of continuing the growth of online commerce. But with online commerce only accounting for about one in ten retail sales I would like to see more focus on the overall retail sales opportunity. The economy and retail in particular needs a significant rise in commerce, whatever channel it comes from.

PMC's Huw Thomas is a regular columnist for Essential Retail, and you can read his views on mCommerce every month.