Mobile Conversion Rates May Not Mean What They Seem To Mean

When E-Commerce execs look at stats comparing mobile and desktop online shopping, one key goal is often to determine conversion, meaning how often consumers close the deal and buy something. But does typical conversion rate data really show that information when it comes to tablets and smartphones?

A report this week from vendor Monetate, for example, showed that desktop devices (laptops, PCs and Macs, primarily) in Q2 2012 typically converted at 3.34 percent, while tablets converted at 3.17 percent and smartphones came in at a measly 1.09 percent. (The study, says the vendor, is based on a "random sample of more than 100 million online shopping experiences using same-store data" and leverages data from many of its retail customers, including Godiva, QVC, Dick's Sporting Goods, Best Buy, Sports Authority, Urban Outfitters and Brooks Brothers.)

The question is, though, what does it mean when a smartphone shopper doesn't close the deal? Could that shopper actually be inside the store at the time and close the deal by taking the item to a checkout lane? Or perhaps that customer is on the train coming home from work and chooses to do the research, browsing and deciding on his or her phone and then saving the winning product to a shopping cart, with the intent of purchasing that night from a laptop at home?

That's not such a far-fetched scenario. Some shoppers may still be nervous about sending their payment-card data across the phone's wireless network. (Their desktop is likely to not be any more secure, but let's not confuse reality with perception.) Also, there might be a password-retention program on their desktop, which could support automatically filling in their address and payment-card data. Or it might simply be that shoppers don't want to pull out their credit cards on a crowded subway car, nor type in their address while sitting next to the scary-looking guy with the scar.

The implication of stats like these—ones showing a much higher conversion from tablets compared with smartphones—would suggest it's the smaller screen size of the smartphone that is fueling what appears to be lower conversions. We're not at all sure that is the case. But the smartphone's smaller size makes it convenient for truly mobile efforts, in a way that an iPad, for example, is not. That means the convenient smartphone is also finding itself in places where payment card—and address—typing may not be optimal.

This question is similar to those posed years ago about E-Commerce, when people noticed a lot of abandoned shopping carts. "Just curious," the knowing IT exec would ask. "What was the last thing most of the abandoned cart people did?" The answer: "Most of them seemed to hit the Find A Store option. Why do you ask?"