Why India's Flipkart abandoned its mobile website

The app has become a far easier and more productive way to conduct business for e-commerce players.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

It seems almost unthinkable -- actually, more like an act of lunacy -- that the leading e-commerce website in India, well entrenched in a booming market albeit still in its embryonic form considering the hundreds of millions who have yet to embrace the internet, would think of shutting down its desktop and mobile websites.

Yet that's exactly what Flipkart and its fashion subsidiary Myntra have done recently. Both have already shuttered their mobile entities, so that users trying to reach the site via a smartphone will be redirected to the Play Store (Android) or the App Store (iOS), depending on the device, and directed to download an app instead. And if that doesn't seem like extreme behaviour, Flipkart is apparently on the verge of doing the same to its desktop site.

India has had a very different experience than the US and China when it comes to mass technology adoption. It has skipped the PC revolution that these other countries went through, and instead went straight to a smartphone one through which most Indians experience the internet. This, of course, has had major ramifications for e-commerce companies hoping to capitalise on the oncoming boom.

The advantage of an e-commerce app in any country makes sense. The impulse to buy anything online is clearly driven by a rich consumer experience, not something that stuttering websites with stillborn graphics can hope to match, but which an app easily lends itself to. A dissatisfying experience can in fact easily torpedo a campaign, as Flipkart found out the hard way when it launched its "The Big Billion Day" sales event in October last year and its website crashed repeatedly, alienating customers. In fact, my money is on the company having arrived speedily at this conclusion after this minor catastrophe.

Now, if you tack on a gigantic population with miserable internet connection speeds, the prospect of scaling up your website operations and back end to deal with not only the overload on it, but also the abysmal experience on the consumer end, whether it is mobile or desktop, is even more bleak. An app allows a user to stay logged in while updates and other information are efficiently and constantly downloaded, ready for consumption almost instantly. It is, in fact, perfect for low-bandwidth situations.

As the Mint article observes, there is another significant imperative that guides e-commerce companies when making decisions that opt in favour of apps: Cost. The amount of money spent on creating and maintaining disparate technology platforms in an environment that is seeing a huge uptick of consumers can be both monetarily debilitating as well as a human resource challenge. Apps also make better business sense, as advertisers can use them to target consumers more accurately, and data can be gathered more easily to enhance customer loyalty.

Here's the kicker: According to sources, mobile traffic on leading e-commerce websites Flipkart and Snapdeal is already north of 75 percent of total traffic for the company, and above a staggering 80 percent for Myntra.

Of course, traffic doesn't translate exactly into purchases, but there is a strong correlation, and the likes of Flipkart are betting that an app-only move is the gateway to future riches.

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