Responsive design is not enough for mobile retailers

In a retail landscape rapidly becoming more mobile every day, the need to serve shoppers effectively wherever and whenever they choose is crucial. Becoming truly omnichannel and omnidevice is difficult for any retailer, but it's a necessity to thrive.

Responsive design has risen as the answer to all the problems that come with building an e-commerce experience across multiple platforms. Unfortunately, it isn't quite that simple.

Many retailers are only now discovering that responsive design, in its most basic form, is great for bridging the gap between desktop and tablet, but when it comes to mobile, performance suffers—a lot. The problem is that the easy solutions for responsive (download this program and be amazed at your omnichannel greatness) can make a page fit on a smaller screen, but do nothing to scale down the features of the site itself. That's a pure responsive approach, and it will cause your mobile site to grind to a halt.

Soumen Das, CEO, UniteU

"[Retailers] forget about how people use smartphones and where they use them," explained Soumen Das, CEO of UniteU, a company working on better approaches to responsive design. "So a responsive, rich site that a lot of people want to use for their desktop sites, if people are sending [that site] down to a smartphone, it's clear that performance is going to suffer."

And that poor performance is costly. Online performance monitoring company Keynote recommends 2 to 6 second load times, and every second beyond that brings an estimated 7 percent loss in conversions. A recent Keynote study tested 12 responsive design sites for online retailers, and found average load times of 3.15 seconds for desktops and 2.80 seconds for tablets, and a whopping 18.24 seconds for smartphones. That's a lot of money left on the table.

"When people say omnidevice or omnichannel it's easily dismissed as a buzzword, but the reality is people do a lot of their shopping on mobile phones or tablets but primarily convert on desktops," said Ari Weil, Yottaa's VP of products. "Yes, there's a shifting tide where people are seeing an increased number of conversions on tablets, but it's not anywhere near the rate that it's growing on mobile."

Ari Weil, VP of products, Yottaa

So pure responsive design isn't the final destination, just another stop along the road. But there are approaches to responsive design that allow mobile retailers to avoid stripping down features on their mobile pages and still enjoy the blazing load speeds that are good for business.

One of those is adaptive serving, which essentially allows users' phones to download only what they need to generate the mobile page. With pure responsive, or 'lower-case r' responsive as Weil refers to it, every time a customer attempts to access the mobile site their phone loads everything necessary to build that page across every platform, desktop and tablet included. Full-fledged computers may not stumble under that weight, but smartphones with unreliable connections are another matter.

"The failed promise of most people's implementations of responsive is that when they have a 1.4 megabyte page on their website…[my phone] is actually going to try to download that full 1.4 megabytes, even though I'm not going to be displaying 70 percent of the content," Weil explained.

Adaptive serving allows retailers to cut out the fat. When a customer tries to load their mobile site, instead of trying to load everything, the server is able to recognize the request is coming from a phone and send only what it needs to load the site on that platform.

Hybrid responsive design further builds on adaptive serving by using separate responsive sites for different platforms like desktop and mobile, and using adaptive serving to send the correct site to the appropriate device. UniteU has seen load times in the range of 4 to 5 seconds using that method, according to Das. That means those sites are almost as fast as the Google home page, but without having to remove the rich content necessary to make the right impression on customers.

The benefits of such methods are clear: They offer the smooth performance across devices that responsive design promises without having to cut down full-featured sites the way pure responsive demands. So why haven't more retailers moved past pure responsive?

Because it's just plain hard to do, according to Weil. It requires new technology and a time investment that the average IT department, under pressure to roll out new features on a strict timetable, simply can't afford.

"In a lot of cases they don't have the budget or the time allocation or the ability to hire third party talent, whether it's consulting or a service to apply it directly. So they're willing to take a risk," he said. "I think the education that needs to take place is what is that adverse impact when you're serving up fat bloated pages and a poor experience."

Source: UniteU

The cost of that poor experience is increasingly becoming impossible for retailers to ignore. An informal UniteU survey (above) at the 2014 Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition took into account 26 retail sites, only seven of which were using a hybrid approach. The average load time for the group was 29.83 seconds, with the slowest crawling in at 50.41 seconds. No one is patient enough to make a purchase at that rate.

For Das, it's all part of the growing pains for what is still a segment of e-commerce in its infancy. The more mobile becomes the central channel through which shoppers want to interact with brands, the more the cost of investing in a truly comfortable omnidevice experience will become a necessity, rather than a luxury.

"E-commerce is evolving and a lot of people deal with e-commerce, but this whole mobile perspective and design, it's still quite new," Das said. "There's a generation coming up that is using smartphones as their main connection to the Internet, and people have got to think about that. You've got to get the basics done first."