Chris Simmance

Mobile Retail Applications: Native v Web Apps

26th Jul 2012 SEO Blog, Mobile Search 9 minutes to read

In recent years, mobile technology, primarily in Smartphones, has developed to the stage where people are using them in most aspects of their daily life. They use them to check the weather, send emails and connect with their friends.  My friend even asks his phone to tell him when to take his food out of the oven.Smartphones have become the modern day Swiss army knife and retailers have been using mobile platforms to generate business from these ever more popular devices in differing ways.  Some retailers have had excellent results and some have not.

With the recent implementation of HTML5 mobile browsers are starting to become more popular with retail companies when they are looking into their mobile Apps. There is now a clear 2nd choice available to developers when deciding how to create their Apps and this blog post aims to show you some of the pros and cons of having a Native App and Web App in retail. I will also show some examples of where this has been done well and others where they’ve missed the mark slightly.

Firstly, I should explain the difference between the two types of Apps and give you a little idea of why this is important to retailers more so than it has been in the recent past.

A Native App is software which is specifically designed to run on proprietary operating systems (OS) such as iOS or Android devices. These are the older of the two App types I will be talking about as they were originally created before the wide availability of web connectivity.  In the past, Applications were only preinstalled on mobile phones and the user was restricted to these alone. It did mean that we all got really good at Snake but it also meant that users were limited to using their mobile phones as, well, mobile phones. The game changer came with the iPhone and the opening of the ’App Store’ in 2008. This with the phone’s superior user interface, integrated billing and access to the Software Development Kit (SDK) smashed down the walls of the old closed App environments and opened the doors to powerful Apps

A Web App is an Application where some or all parts of the software are downloaded through web-compatible mobile devices each time it’s used.  They are usually written in a web browser-rendered language such as HTML, often combined with java script. Development has expanded only recently after Google successfully implemented HTML5 based Apps. Although not strictly Web Apps, the old WAP portals could be described as the precursor to the modern Web App.

Why are Native and Web Apps important to retail? A simple answer is that as there are so many people using Smartphones to research before buying it is important for retailers to have an App to showcase their products and offer methods for conversion.

Other reasons why both Native and Web retail Apps are important include;

  • They offer the user an alternative to making in-store purchases
  • They allow users to make more informed choices through reviews of products thus increasing trust in the brand
  • The opportunity to cut out the competition by only displaying their products in an environment of their design
  • They can help retailers extend their brand loyalty

Some companies have made use of both Native App and Web app; however there are differences within them and there are both good and bad things to consider when a retailer is looking to develop a mobile App.

A few positive points for Native Apps are;

  • They offer deeper engagement with the user
  • They can filter out the competition, only show their products and promote the products they want to sell better
  • They are more secure as they do not need access to a network so frequently
  • They can save your preferences offline and become intuitive depending on previous purchases
  • They can utilise the Smartphone’s hardware by having more of the software installed allowing increased functionality

A few negative points against Native Apps are;

  • They don’t reach as big an audience as Web App’s can
  • As they have to be developed across several platforms (e.g. iOS & Android) the cost for development can be high
  • Updates to the software can be slower as not only would they need to be made across different platforms.  They would also have to be rolled out through the respective App-Stores meaning that not every user would be using the current version of the App
  • After downloading an App, fewer than 5% of users actively use it one month on *

 ( * Source:

A few positive points for Web Apps are;

  • They only require development on one platform which can be more cost effective as a result of being built on a single platform; updates are also faster and can be rolled out in one release to all users.
  •  When at the research stage of a purchase a user is less likely to download several bespoke Native Apps and is more likely to utilise a Smartphone’s browser and search for the product.
  • A robust Web App can take advantage of web traffic and can make use of SEO in a way that Native Apps cannot. To that end they can have a more relevant reach at the research stage than an App-Store download.
  • Because they are cross platform and it is possible to take advantage of the higher reach offered through a web browser.

A few negative points for Web Apps are;

  • If a user frequently wants to use a retailers App they may be put off by having to search or type the URL  in every time they choose to visit
  • They can be less secure as there is more reliance on a network connection
  • As they rely on a network connection it can, in cases where network reception is poor or slow, the App may fail to load properly or even load at all.
  • HTML, even in its newest form and Java can lack some of the functional possibilities that Native Apps do not

There are both positive and negative things to consider with Native and Web App development. The ideal solution for the time being is that if budget allows, a retailer should hedge their bets and develop both types of App. As browser based Web Apps evolve it wouldn’t be surprising if developers incorporate a Web App into their Native ‘App-Store’ Applications.  In much the same way as the iOS Facebook App allows users to launch HTML5 based Applications.

Some good examples of Native Retail and Web Apps include;

amazon logoAmazon adapted to the new mobile market early and can boast making sales around £650,000 in 2010 from mobile sales. The App’s have some really useful features that give the user more control at the research stage. One of these features allows customers to scan a products barcode and remember it for purchasing later using an offline shopping comparison tool. They also benefit from the ease of purchase perspective over traditional high street stores by making ‘1-click’ purchases. This is a typical decision making factor in modern day retail and has been one of the reasons for their success.  They have still kept to their main much loved features like, Recommendations and Wishlists, which has been well delivered to the mobile shoppers.


ASOS logo

ASOS is another great example of a non-high street company making excellent use of mobile retail. Since launching their mobile site sales have increased by over 800% in a year.

Both Apps are easy to use, allowing users to synchronise their online accounts with the app meaning that they can shop on their PC, save the products they were looking at and continue to shop using the Apps with the products available to view.  They have also made great use of Smartphone functionality by allowing users to search by location for their nearest pickup or drop off points.



The Trainline’s standard website itself is a little clunky and often a bit annoying to use, but they have really embraced the mobile retail opportunity with these Apps. It’s easy to check times, prices and make purchases of tickets. The Apps make full use of being a mobile by allowing a user to find their next train based on their location. One of the pitfalls though is that you still have to collect your tickets from a machine at the station rather than having an e-Ticket style system, although this is quite likely an industry standards problem as there are so many train operators. The Trainlines’ mobile website is a poor example of making use of a mobile browser as you can see from the screenshot it is somewhat lacking in ease of use and a good aesthetic for the user.


* TheTrainLine have improved their Mobile Site to a Mobile App it went live on the 10th of April and this has dramatically improved the Apps’ functionality will greatly help TheTrainLine improve their reach. Below is a screenshot of the new mobile site. 


There are some great online only retailers who still have not taken advantage of mobile apps such as (iPhone screenshot below). Their website when viewed on a mobile is cluttered and navigation, especially at checkout, takes a lot of effort and is better suited to people with smaller thumbs.

In summary, with Smartphones and mobile devices becoming ever more powerful and widely used it would be foolish for a retailer not to create and use a Native or Web mobile App.  The two App solutions are both architecturally different; however the user experience between the two is becoming increasingly blurred as browser based language further develops. As I explained earlier in the post, ideally if budget allows, a retailer should create both a Web App and a Native App to hedge their bets and meet all their mobile users’ needs.

In my opinion, a Web App is the more beneficial solution for most retailers for a few reasons;

  • As they are able to have more control over what the App becomes (The App-stores can have specific rules and requirements that a Web App doesn’t necessarily need to follow).
  • With proper Search Engine Optimisation they are able to take advantage of web traffic from the users searching for products at the research stage unlike in a Native App.
  • The cost of development and updating the App are also smaller as well as rolling out updates being easier across the entire audience.

As the gap between the two App types gets smaller and Apps better allow HTML5 (and subsequent releases) to run within them retail App developers will start to adopt a hybrid approach to their App design. This will allow them to marry the best of both worlds by capturing the web traffic from a Web App and then using the functionality afforded to the Native App.

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