Are you delivering the optimal shopping experience for shoppers on tablets and smartphones?

By Thierry Costa,

Your online customers are increasingly relying on their tablets and smartphones to research products they want to buy, and to complete their purchases. “Couch commerce,” where shoppers are using their portable devices to take their online shopping away from their desks, has grown steadily over the past several months: according to IBM’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday Reports from late 2011, sales from mobile devices were three times higher in 2011 than 2010. The New York Times also reported that tablets gained prominence with online holiday shopping, as 75% of web shoppers made purchases on their tablets and 94% on their laptops. Some experts predict that tablets will ultimately replace the desktop as a preferred method for purchasing online.

To make sure your customers are just as enthusiastic about your own mobile storefront(s), you should smooth out the navigational and search bumps that can get in the way of fast, easy browsing and shopping – and what you do for a smartphone shopper can differ substantially for tablet shoppers. The technical specifications of both devices require separate strategies for developing ways to help customers browse and find products. Tablets in general offer certain benefits over smartphones as the screens are bigger, which means content and images are easier to read and see.

The tips below are just a few ideas for what retailers can do to improve the user experience of their tablet and smartphone shopping sites by delivering a tailored search and navigation experience.

Assess image selection and zooming capability: Do your product photos rely heavily on a shopper’s ability to zoom in on images, select parts of images, or click back and forth among sets of images? Because tablet users use fingertip taps and swipes to select images and content, make sure you design the user experience to take these gestures into account. Allow users to pinch images, rotate them with their fingers, and hold their fingers on or tap an image to load a bigger image. Consider adding these capabilities right within search results pages. Allowing users to “play” with the product images in search results pages makes a lot of sense – users can examine a product and compare product options directly from the search page, where additional refinements and sort options are also available.

Rethink navigation elements for tablets and smartphones: As with images, tapping the screen is the standard method of navigation for tablets, and for most smartphones as well. However, small text menus – for instance, those that you might find in lists of refinements – are hard to tap on without hitting another menu item by mistake. The same goes for buttons that are too close together, or pagination numbers: these items are easy to click on with a mouse, but challenging to click on with a finger.

Consider making sure text font size and action buttons for tablets and smartphones are bigger than what you would normally use on your regular website. One good presentation idea is a drop-down menu, which gives users full refinement capability while saving screen space by hiding options when they are not in use. This helps reduce visual clutter on the mobile site, since visitors can view more products and content without having to scroll down.

Search page results should also follow device-specific guidelines. For instance, on a smartphone shopping site’s search results page, make sure to use only one column in order to maximize the use of the limited space. Include clear thumbnail images, with product name, short description, and price. On your tablet shopping site search results page, you should use two or three columns in a grid view compared to the three, four, or five you might use on your regular web shopping site. Better yet, allow users to choose the number of grid columns on your tablet shopping site, with a simple swipe of the finger!

Help shoppers do their research – and find the “Buy” button quicker. Consumers using smartphones are sometimes referred to as “hunters,” since they’re usually doing product research or hunting for the best price. For instance, these browsers might be looking for store location and hours, finding out if a particular product is in stock – or looking for a better price online while in a brick-and-mortar store. So how do you turn these browsers into shoppers? One way is to encourage them to shop by rendering the “shop” step easy and natural. This can be done by adding a “Buy” button on the search results page right under the product description or image. Consider showing discounted prices to encourage browsers to become shoppers. Simplifying the checkout process, by reducing the numbers of steps, is also recommended.

Also, make it easy for smartphone users to find localized information, such as product availability near their present location, with simple “In Stock” or “Available Nearby” buttons that take them to the “Buy Now” page directly form the search results page.

On the other hand, when your customers are using tablets to browse your storefront, they’re often sitting comfortably on their couch and are ready to commit to a purchase. In fact, 49% of tablet owners say they plan to buy more via their devices in the coming year, compared with 19% of smartphone owners, according to a study from Zmags and Equation Research. Make sure your search and navigation tools help speed the path from browsing to buying for tablet users – for instance, indicate whether products are in stock or out of stock in search results, so that shoppers can quickly find a product that’s available now.

Give prominent placement to the search box – and add a search box to the bottom of the page. While tablet users benefit from more screen real estate, they can still use some help in finding the search box. For both smartphone and tablet storefronts, make sure the search box is large and easy to find. On Gotapparel’s mobile site, the search box takes up much of the space on the home page, which makes sense – it should be more prominent than the search box that appears on your standard online storefront. For smartphone users, it helps to add an extra search box at the bottom of webpages. This allows shoppers to easily continue exploring the site without having to scroll back up to the top.

The smartphone and tablet landscape is changing rapidly, as new models flood the market and capabilities improve. At the same time, consumers show increasing willingness to shift their browsing and buying habits to these convenient devices. Keep a close eye on website analytics that can tell you which devices shoppers are using when they browse your site and when they make a purchase – and make sure they’re indulging in the best possible m-commerce or couch commerce experience.

Thierry Costa is VP marketing at SLI Systems, a full-service, customized, on-demand solutions for site-search, navigation, merchandising, and user-generated SEO. He can be reached at

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