Do Walmart, Macy's And Target Even Know Tablets Exist?

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After two years and 125 million iPads and other tablet computers shipped, most large chains' mobile Web sites still don't seem to know that tablets exist. They still serve up an M-Commerce site designed for a tiny smartphone screen, which looks somewhere between mediocre and terrible on a tablet screen that's seven inches or larger.

That means just a few years after chains finally figured out the importance of customizing M-Commerce sites for phones, there's a new advantage to be gained by spotting which mobile devices don't have tiny screens and giving them their own customized tablet sites—or at least the full-size Web site.

Among the largest retailers, only the Amazon, Home Depot, McDonald's, Kohl's, Apple, JCPenney, Gap and Overstock Web sites showed up in a tablet or full-screen version. Staples.com showed up on a seven-inch tablet with slightly more content added to what was still clearly a site designed for a phone screen.

But Walmart, Target, Walgreen, CVS, Lowe's, Best Buy, Sears, Macy's, Rite Aid, TJ Maxx, Nordstrom and even eBay served up exactly the same screen for a tablet as for a phone with a screen a small fraction of the size. On the phone, those compact, minimalist sites help usability. On even a small tablet, the result is vast expanses of blank space that all but drives away customers.

This wasn't what we were expecting when we started looking at how E-Commerce sites show up on a tablet. Tablets certainly aren't new, we figured. The installed base of tablets is about 125 million as of June 2012, according to industry parts-watcher iSuppli, and that number is roughly doubling every year. They're very, very much on the minds of retail IT shops for in-store use. Of course big chains would already have tailored their M-Commerce sites to handle big screens well, just like everyone finally launched mobile versions of their sites to handle small phone screens. Or so we assumed.

Not so, it turned out. The only accommodation most chains have made to tablets is that there's a link at the bottom of the mobile homepage to let shoppers see the regular E-Commerce Web site.

That sends a clear message: "We can't bother to notice you're using a tablet with a screen big enough that it makes our mobile site look silly or ugly or both. But if you really want to see a full-size site, we'll allow you to scroll to the bottom of the page hunting for a link to click." Yeah, that sure won't drive customers into the arms of competitors.

Of course, not many competitors are identifying tablets as different from mobile phones. The ones that do mostly seem to serve up the standard full-screen E-Commerce site for tablets and a typical phone site for phones, though there are some interesting variations.

For example, Staples did show a few more links at the top and bottom of the screen when we tested it with an Android tablet, compared with what showed up on an iPhone screen. It was still basically the same mobile site, and it wasn't clear whether the difference was tablet-vs.-phone or Android-vs.-iPhone.

Apple's mobile site, on the other hand, looked almost exactly like its regular Web site, except that on the tablet it rearranged itself when the orientation changed from portrait to landscape. Interestingly, on the iPhone it correctly identified that it was an iPhone and served up a slightly different site—more links, a special version of the iPhone 5 image that dominated the homepage. But even after correctly IDing the phone, it didn't adjust the page to make it more small-screen-friendly. (Maybe Apple is hinting that it's time to buy a phone with a bigger screen.)But the unwillingness of so many big retailers to cater to tablet-using customers is puzzling. Particularly surprising is eBay, which on Monday (Sept. 24) announced it has reached the milestone of 100 million listings via mobile, as well as 100 million downloads of its app. But eBay served up the same mobile site on our test tablet as on a phone.

Is it because chains expect customers to download their apps? That's not a safe assumption. True, customers can easily install and delete free retailer apps. But that takes time, and just a little bit of commitment that shouldn't be necessary for a bit of online shopping. Imagine telling in-store customers, "We'll let you in, but our associates won't treat you like a first-class customer unless you join our loyalty program." Again, that's a great way to drive new customers away (unless you're Costco or Sam's Club, in which case you won't even let them in unless they join).

Do M-Commerce developers assume that it's enough to have a link to the full-scale site? That they can afford to annoy customers the first time, but once a customer has clicked through to the full-size site it's enough to remember that so the customer will never see the minimal mobile site again? That is the way many mobile sites and mobile browsers work. But because the mobile versions of most chains' sites begin with "m." or "mobile." it's easy enough for customers to find the minimal site. Why risk annoying the customer at all?

Or maybe most chains figure it's safer to lump tablets in with phones than with PCs. That may be exactly the wrong way to split the market.

After all, those minimal mobile sites have always been a pretty terrible compromise. The list-o'-links design approach makes it possible for users to click on a tiny touchscreen, but that's all. No marketer would choose to serve up such simplified sites, on which almost no products are on display and where it's impractical to highlight most promotions. (Need proof? Those are exactly the things your marketing people stuff your full-size homepage with: promotions and pictures of products.)

That means getting away from minimal sites is exactly what M-Commerce developers should be doing, and not just for tablet users. Phone screens are steadily getting bigger—with each passing month, a random M-Commerce customer's phone is more likely to be able to handle a full-size site. Meanwhile, half of customers in the U.S. and western Europe are already using smartphones, and much of that growth is at the low end, with users trading up from feature phones.

So while new smartphone users are flowing into traditional, minimal M-Commerce sites at the low end, high-end phones are ready to leave minimal sites behind, and tablets are already there. In short, the split between "mobile" and "regular" Web sites is no longer lined up with mobile devices vs. PCs. It's all about screen size—and, increasingly, M-Commerce will involve big screens for customers with the most money to spend.

Eventually that will mean doing the little extra work necessary to identify tablet and big-screen phone users. Serving them an appropriate Web site will then become the standard.

In the meantime, it looks like an instant advantage for almost any chain that does it.