Serena Potter, a marketing executive with Macy's, has been watching customers migrate from desktop to mobile for about five years. The shift prompted the largest department store in the nation to double down on mobile, Ms. Potter said, even though it initially didn't have the space figured out.
"It wasn't an obstacle for us as much as it was a steep learning curve," said Ms. Potter, group VP at Macy's. "You didn't know what you didn't know."
Beyond creating mobile technology, there are myriad issues for traditional retailers to sort out, such as apps, loyalty programs, data collection and anticipating what's next after mobile. Retailers born with a mobile-first mentality don't face the same problems that more established ones do, Ms. Potter said. "Macy's was optimizing and doing desktop for years. And we became really good at it; desktop became predictable. But with this mobile transformation, you have customers accessing different information, with different intent. A lot of research and a lot of discovery is happening and it's all on the go."
For a $16.5 billion retailer that first opened its doors in 1858, quickly focusing on mobile isn't simple.
But mobile is only part of the equation, said Vicki Cantrell, senior VP-communities at the National Retail Federation. "There are so many places and so many ways for the consumer to interact with a retailer," she said. "It isn't a single laser focus."
About 95% of retailers the NRF surveyed last month have mobile-optimized sites, and eight out of 10 give customers who are logged in the ability to save their cart between platforms. Consumers who use a retailer's app are more likely to become loyal customers, Ms. Cantrell said, but nearly half the retailers surveyed don't offer a loyalty program across web and mobile. "The consumer always expects every experience to be the best one they have had. Whenever they have a great experience with a great mobile app, then they do not understand why every retail mobile app doesn't look like that," she said.
When it comes to time spent on a device, mobile dominates desktop at a ratio of nearly 60-40, according to ComScore. To further complicate the matter, 88% of a user's time is spent in apps when using a smartphone, and getting customers to download—and use—an app isn't easy.
"From talking to larger, more established retailers, I think the challenge a lot of them did have was they were created in a different world," said Craig Miller, chief marketing officer at Shopify. "A lot of them were struggling to just basically keep up. They were created in a time when people didn't spend most of their lives on the internet, didn't spend most of their lives on the phone, and so they are set up with legacy systems. They were set up with old ideas and a lot of them were just struggling to keep up and not even innovate. They were not even thinking of the next thing, which is mobile."
Mr. Miller said it's very possible that the future of e-commerce will completely take place within apps. Shopify has been aggressively rolling out e-commerce stores within apps from Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. And many merchants are seeing a lot of success on those platforms, Mr. Miller said.
"There are two types of apps out there," Mr. Miller said. "The first type is a very boring app that looks like a website, but shrunk down with a checkout page. Some of these legacy retailers make an app, and when they're done put a checkmark next to it. Then there are advanced companies that look at mobile and look at all the features that mobile has, like being able to scan barcodes or use geolocation."
Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, started his business online before opening a physical store. "When we started Warby Parker, all the talk was about desktop," he said. "And now all everyone talks about, us included, is mobile. I know 10 years from now, I don't know what it will be [we are talking about], but I'm absolutely certain it will not be mobile."