Does your company's web site need responsive design?

Yes. Well, no. OK, maybe. At the annual Shop.org conference, retailers evaluate the latest web development with a mix of hope and hesitation.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor
Photo illustration: Andrew Nusca

CHICAGO—Let's cut right to the chase, shall we?

People are using mobile devices like never before. (According to Pew research from this year, 56 percent of U.S. adults own smartphones and 34 percent own tablets.) They're spending more time on them than they used to. (U.S. adults will spend 19.4 percent of their overall media time on mobile devices, on par with traditional computers, per Pew.) And of that attention, an increasing amount is dedicated to the mobile web. (Mobile browser usage doubled in last 12 months, according to Net Applications data from this year.) 

The vast majority of those people are retail customers.

Problem? You bet.

Four retail executives joined here at the annual Shop.org summit to discuss how the surge in mobile activity has swamped their businesses with new concerns—and how addressing the problem with responsive design, that trendy web development technique that allows a single website to display on a variety of different devices of differing screen dimensions, is now nothing short of an imperative.

Unless it's not. Well, it depends on your business.

"There's a huge shift in how people are purchasing," Cuker Interactive chief executive Aaron Cuker said. "We really see mobile as the forefront of that."

Here's what we do know. More often, we're spending our time checking our e-mail on our smartphones, which makes it a better place for promotions than the old laptop. People love to shop online at work, and mobile devices are a far more private way of doing so than on a desktop PC. Mobile devices are far more convenient to indulge the urge to splurge, and from a technological perspective, it's getting easier to create a website that can address a customer's lofty expectations.

So it's just a matter of putting responsive design at the top of your web development list, right? Not quite.

A dedicated mobile website, or "m dot" in industry parlance, works best "when your use case is dramatically different than the desktop," said Cuker, whose namesake company has worked with Quiksilver, Nixon and Nike. If you're an airline, your core customer is comparison shopping on your desktop site but checking in or quickly booking a flight on a mobile site.

Meanwhile, a responsive website "is really the way to go when you are in the process of redesigning your website," he said.

And let's not forget about native mobile apps. Those are really best for "a specific set of functionality that you can't get in a web browser," Cuker said. "I never recommend taking the exact same set of content and repurposing it for an app," because it's a waste for the customer.

Recommendations are all well and good, but what does the real world actually look like? That's where the panelists came in. Jared Blank, vice president of e-commerce for preppy outfitter Tommy Hilfiger; Gary Penn, director of global e-commerce for jeans maker True Religion; and Dennis Rohm, chief technology officer for custom suitmaker Indochino were present to recall some stories (and show some scars, so to speak) that illustrate how their companies addressed the great mobile movement.

The Tommy Hilfiger take

Tommy Hilfiger's desktop website.

"We have a responsive site now, but that came as part of a replatforming project that we did several years ago," Blank told the audience. "We went down this rabbit hole building our own mobile site on our old platform…in the end, we decided to replatform and throw out six months of development on our mobile site. We moved to [IBM] WebSphere, which we're on now. Our implementer came to us and said, 'we have an idea.' They got this thing built in a month.

"We don't have a large IT department; we have a small IT group. The idea that we don't have to maintain two or three codebases seemed like a great idea. Responsive isn't [necessarily] every single thing on your site—you can pick and choose [what you display]. You have far more flexibility than I expected you to have.

"The thing that was probably key was finding someone in the organization who's really pumped about mobile. We have that—we asked her to head it up, and she's taken it and run with it in a [wonderful] way. She would always ask, 'What about mobile?' to the point where we'd send mocking e-mails to each other with the hashtag, #whataboutmobile. But it's really great because it's still not top of mind."

Resource contraints affect the Hilfiger team as much as they do anyone else, but technical limitations can help ease the pain, Blank said.

"You know when you do a big project, and there's four things on the list? Those things never get done. If they were that important, they would have gotten done [before launch]," he said. "There are restrictions around responsive. It's not unlimited in what it can do. For us, that's a feature and not a bug. That's great. It gives us a framework around what we want to do."

When it comes to doing something, "sometimes the answer's no, and that's a good thing," he added.

Not that the company isn't paying attention. Its mobile visitors have doubled compared to last year, to the point where they're a significant portion of overall traffic for the first time. That puts pressure on the site's development team to address issues that perhaps weren't as critical before.

"I looked at our mobile conversion rate, and it's terrible," he said. "We have double the usage of the device that has one-third the conversion rate of our regular site. That's a really big problem! It will come down to, what is your mobile version doing? What do you want it to do? We had an app a few years back, and it was essentially the website in app form, which was everyone's idea in 2005 or 2006. Retailers are just starting to think about what it means, and what it does for them. So hopefully our conversion rate will go up. I bet in the coming year, we'll ask, if this thing isn't about selling, I need to rethink the way we present information to people."

At True Religion, few believers to be found

True Religion's desktop website.

Fun as it is to talk about tomorrow's—or let's face it, today's—technology, there are bigger wins to be had in getting better at the basics, Penn argued.

"Make sure that you are doing the blocking and tackling on mobile rather than going for the whiz-bang factor," he warned the audience. "Are you adapting your emails for mobile? Probably half of you will say no. And they're driving 20 percent of your revenue? As much as you want that single codebase or consolidated revenue, I come back to value to the business. The experience of landing on a mobile site is a fantastic one if you're a consumer, but not if you don't give them the content they're looking for in the first place. Just landing someone on a mobile site isn't enough."

Sometimes those wins can be head-slappingly obvious.

"People are taking these devices and doing different things with them," Penn said. "People still, to this day, are researching online and buying offline. Otherwise brick-and-mortar would be dead like we said it would be 10 years ago. So your mobile device is augmenting the experience. Which means that if your mobile site isn't detecting where you are, you can probably throw responsive out the window [as a priority]."

"How many people are on the fence about responsive?" Penn asked the audience. A couple dozen hands raised in the air. "How many of you already have responsive sites?" he countered. Just a few raised hands.

"Ask yourself the question of what the business is trying to accomplish and in what timeframe," Penn said. "If you're all going to look for a silver bullet, you're not going to find one.

"We're undergoing a desktop redesign and mobile redesign, and we made the decision to keep those separated. We have responsive for a larger form factor—Kate Spade has done this successfully, John Varvatos has done this successfully—so there's a lot of [informational] context. For the smaller form factor, we maintained a separate site."

Finding inspiration at Indochino

Indochino's desktop website.

For Indochino—a company "held in high regard" in the retail industry for its online user experience, Cuker said—the mobile question was best served by asking: what are we trying to do?

The team had two challenges to solve, Rohm said. First, it needed a seamless e-commerce offering, and for that it chose responsive design. "We did it in-house with a relatively small team: a couple of engineers and a really small UX team," he said. "We paired them."

Second, it needed a way to better connect its traveling tailors, which take residence in temporary pop-up shops in U.S. cities to measure men for new suits, to its central system.

"We're trying to solve is how to get orders into our system at our traveling tailor shops, where we don't know what the connection is going to be like, and the user is the salesperson," Rohm said. "We wanted a slick application that would work with an unreliable Internet connection and could expand in the future, such as using a native camera [for measurement] and a swipe device [for payment]. Our app is an easy solution for our salespeople."

Still, "we definitely operate in a resource-constrained environment," Rohm said. "For us, looking at the analytics and determining how our customers are using the mobile devices, that really drove the phases of our development. More than 50 percent of our customers were viewing emails on iOS devices. So we focused on that experience right out of the gate. And then we looked to the path to purchase, and focused on that."

Next steps

Of course, hindsight is 20/20: it's easy to talk about what you shoulda-woulda-coulda done with regard to a mobile website. Given these lessons learned, how is each retailer tackling the next wave of projects?

Blank said Tommy Hilfiger is keeping a careful eye on how the company's mobile offerings are used in a physical store—and the politics around that.

"Part of this is an organizational issue; in many, who do you get in a room to talk about what your in-store mobile strategy means?" he asked rhetorically. "Your stores team may see your online piece as a competitor. We can take a lot of steps forward in terms of educating each other. It has to be collaborative to really accomplish anything. There's a pretty broad group of people that have to be involved. And think about your merchants—people who design the product have a lot to say that can be really useful. And the local store staff, because they're interacting with people."

Penn said True Religion is taking nothing for granted and carefully re-evaluating every decision it has made.

"We're looking at what the killer features are that are going to require an app for us," he said. "We actually pulled our app earlier this year because the technology has gotten so great with our forthcoming mobile site that the difference wasn't so great. It depends on what the business wants. We're going to recouple our app next year when we're launching our loyalty program. And a lot of folks are enabling store associates with omnichannel inventory, which drives app need."

Rohm said Indochino is following through on the plan it put in place earlier.

"On the responsive side, we've got quite a bit of work to do still. One thing people need to be aware of is how quickly things are moving around responsive and making your site feel like a native app. There are a number of advancements to allow a site to really behave like an app—using hardware acceleration, how swipes behave...there are a lot of nuances to create a better experience for the customer.

"The other piece is around site design. On our original pass, we focused on making the site responsive from a horizontal perspective; on our second pass we're focused on making it better from a vertical perspective. Because we've got the plumbing, there it's relatively trivial to do.

"We really started as an online store that moved offline. On the native app front, because it's designed for speed, one of the setbacks is that it doesn't make our customers in the store aware that things can be purchased on the site. We're planning to really integrate the site content with the app itself so we can demo that."

In the end, retailers have to be realistic as they continue to plow forward in the rapidly changing world of mobile, Blank said.

"It always takes time for consumers to like something new, even if it's better," he acknowledged. "Anytime you make a major change, good or not, customers aren't going to like it in the beginning. But think about why you're making that change, and what statistics will support that."

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