What’s a Mobile Device?

This past weekend there was a lot of discussion about the growth in shopping on mobile devices. However, I think I am missing something when I read these. When did the notebook PC stop being a mobile device and when did the iPad (and other tablets) start becoming one?

I have yet to see a consumer hauling out their 10inch iPad at Best Buy or Walmart to check a price. And considering more than ¾ of consumers’ tablet usage happens at home, and that we have spent the last 6 months arguing about how the tablet is hollowing out the PC market, how did shopping on a tablet at home become mobile shopping? How is that different than buying stuff on my laptop?

I get that some of this is about tracking. It is pretty easy to measure the volume of activity that happens on iOS since it is on just a couple of device types (and Android too) but we shouldn’t be making these broad generalizations because that is all we can track, we should be seeking out a deeper understanding of how the tablet and the smartphone are changing behavior.

NPD’s Connected Intelligence Smartmeter lets us do some of that, and that mobile usage data seems to support my contention. One would think that most engagement on a mobile device, whether it is iOS or Android, center around apps, and that consumers ought to be using apps much more extensively to shop than just surfing on their browser to the relevant site. Except that isn’t what is happening, in fact according to the Smartmeter most people on smartphones still go to retail websites over apps to shop. And I have to imagine, on a much bigger screen, that most consumers are not downloading the Walmart app to shop on their tablet but are going directly to the website on that device as well.

A big part of this silliness is based on two very weak premises to make these broad judgments. First, is that mobile shopping, even if you include the iPad and other tablets, represents less than 25 percent of sales. So that means that 75 percent of all transactions still happen on a desktop or a laptop, and to me, that is a pretty solid number. The argument that this is some huge phenomenon is similar to the on-going argument about the decline of retail. Around 75 percent of all tech sales still happen in the store and it will be a long time, just like this “mobile” shopping discussion, before the web overtakes the store in sales volumes.

The second issue is this worship of growth. Yes, growth is important but businesses need volume today too, and the vast majority of volume, whether it is actual sales volume, or shopping activity continues to be done on traditional devices, in traditional ways. By these tracking methods that just talk about mobile platforms we are overemphasizing growth at the expense of understanding the activity as it exists today.

I am not here to argue that the tablet isn’t the single most important tech product in the last five years (I think it is) nor am I here to say that today’s brick and mortar experience can’t be improved (no one doubts that it can), what I am here to debate, again, is what is a mobile device, and why should I care whether someone buys something from me on a tablet or a PC? And that the experience on those two devices is a lot more similar than it is different, and the real different experience is a smartphone, which continues to account for a small share of shopping. Just like all the data we all see, consumers are using tablets in remarkably similar ways to how they use notebooks, so why aren’t we categorizing them together?

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