Mobile Retailing

Mobile retailing is a term used to describe shopping or purchasing using smartphones or tablets. It is now the fastest-growing segment of the retail sector in the UK, the U.S. and Western Europe. In China and Japan consumers have been even more enthusiastic about mobile retailing. In Western Europe mobile retailing, which represented only 6.7% of total online sales in 2013 had risen to 33.9% by 2018.

The use of technology to do conventional things is growing rapidly. In the UK, it was revealed in 2019 that 69% of people used contactless cards at least once in the previous year, including more than 60% of people aged over 65 years (UK Finance, 2019). Cash was used in only 28% of transactions in the UK, but in Sweden this proportion would be regarded as laughably high. Notes and coins are only used for 2% of transactions in Sweden: half of retailers expect they will stop accepting banknotes by 2025. The vast bulk of transactions are made using debit card or smartphone-based Swish.

Mobile Retailing in the UK

In Europe the country with the largest mobile retail section is the UK, with 43.0% of online retailing carried out via smartphones and tablets. Almost 60% of mobile retailing was done on smartphones (£17.845bn) and the remainder on tablets (£12.129bn). Other countries with large mobile sectors were Germany (41% of all online shopping), The Netherlands (36.6%) and France (33.2%).

The Growth of Mobile Retailing

Both the iPad and the iPhone have had a tremendous impact on personal technology throughout the world, stimulating hundreds of competitor products. A large proportion of users were already obsessed with their mobile phones and made increasing use of the greater functionality of being able to review and send photographs, make use of social media on their hand-held devices and view retail websites. It was very convenient to use smartphones for shopping because these devices were carried everywhere: this was less true for tablets, although they tend to be more convenient than PCs and laptops when used at home.

Retailers had to change their websites to ensure they could be easily used by hand-held devices. This generally meant automatically transferring users of smartphones and tablets to sites that could load faster on these smaller devices and contained less information, so were less likely to freeze or take an eternity to load. Smaller screens also made logins harder and mobile payments were more difficult because of the small screen size. Retailers have had to overcome all these different problems incrementally. 

However the sheer convenience of smartphones and tables enables shoppers to browse websites at any time of day or night, while they are on the bus, train or a car passenger going to work or during spare time when at work or school. They are also very useful in responding to ‘daily offers’ and other temporary price cuts.

The Extent of Mobile Shopping

The average transaction of a mobile shopper is less than the amount spent by someone using a PC. This may be an issue of security when larger sums are involved, or simply that the mobile shopper buys goods online more frequently and is less likely to store up potential online purchases for a long time.

There were 117.1m mobile shoppers in Western Europe in 2018 (defined as consumers who had bought goods using their mobile device at least once in 2018). The largest numbers were in Germany and the UK. Germany also had the largest proportion of internet shoppers who were also mobile shoppers (68.0%), followed by the UK (66.7%) and The Netherlands (56.5%). The arithmetical average for Western Europe was 56.5%, so more than one-half of internet shoppers were already using their mobile devices to make purchases. The proportion of each country’s population that used mobiles to buy merchandise varied quite widely: the UK had the highest percentage (48.3%) with Italy having the smallest proportion at 14.1%. These percentages are all expected to rise swiftly over the next two-three years.  

Mobile Shopping in Physical Stores

Mobile retailing can also be part of traditional shopping in physical stores. People carry their mobile phones with them everywhere, so when out shopping they can

  • browse the websites of different shops
  • use store plans to work out where they should go in a store
  • look up product details online when staff are busy
  • compare store prices with other shops
  • order goods online for home delivery
  • order goods on their mobile to be reserved for store collection
  • use ‘pay-and-go’ technology to avoid queues.

This means that more successful traditional retailers can build on their existing mobile-friendly websites and other facilities to integrate their online offer with shopping in physical stores, irrespective of whether the goods are bought online or purchased within the store.
UK Finance (2019) UK Payments Markets 2019, London: UK Finance.

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