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Future Proofing E-Commerce for the Mobile Era

By Mike O'Connor
Sep 22, 2012 5:00 AM PT

The launch of smartphones with the capacity for e-commerce created a new channel for Internet merchants to address, mobile commerce.

Future Proofing E-Commerce for the Mobile Era

M-commerce revenues are expected to grow to US$31 billion by 2016, according to Forrester Research. The number of mobile devices available for making purchases on the Web has drastically increased since the iPhone first made waves. There are currently several key smartphone players and multiple tablet providers, and new devices are relentlessly released into the market.

Considering that mobile Internet use has essentially doubled every year since 2009 -- based on research from analytics firm StatCounter -- there is no question that Internet merchants must put a great focus on mobile. However, with so many devices -- varying in size and functionality -- an m-commerce strategy that addresses every angle can be overwhelming and convoluted.

Maintaining an m-commerce strategy has become much more complex since the first generation of smartphones debuted. Initially, Internet merchants took a segmented approach, creating m-commerce sites to run independently from their flagship websites. Mobile sites were scaled down to fit smartphones.

However, the introduction of tablets resulted in screen dimensions that were in between those of computers and smartphones. The segmented mobile strategy required a business to maintain three separate sites to reach all platforms. This meant three separate projects -- and three separate sets of costs incurred -- each time a site needed maintenance or updates.

Furthermore, new platforms are sure to be released in the future. Keeping up with a segmented mobile strategy will be an initiative unto itself. Fortunately, innovative solutions -- like websites leveraging responsive design -- provide a simplified approach to maintaining an e-commerce presence on the entire spectrum of Internet devices.

An Elegant Solution

Responsive design is an effective solution to the challenges presented by the explosion of mobile Internet use because it eliminates the need for a segmented mobile strategy. A single responsive design website identifies and adapts to whatever device is accessing it to provide an optimal user experience.

For Internet merchants, this means one e-commerce site can be accessed and used by customers on every type of device: computers, smartphones, tablets, etc. Responsive sites analyze the resolution constraints associated with every size and type of mobile device. They then make adjustments to presentation layers to offer the best display for the device in use.

Responsive design provides a simplified solution to the m-commerce conundrum, but there are many other advantages leading e-tailers to take a look at this flexible approach.

E-commerce sites created with a responsive design strategy require a significant, up-front investment on development but become cost savers in the long run. When it comes time for updates and maintenance, a responsive e-commerce site incurs costs only once. As long as future Internet devices still use a screen for display, responsive design will be able to optimally present e-commerce sites on them with minor adjustments.

The device-independent functionality that responsive design offers an e-commerce website also ensures the store has access to the maximum number of potential customers. There is no risk of losing Windows Phone customers or iPad customers just because an m-commerce site won't fit in the dimensions of those devices.

For Internet merchants, this is a digital application of the old retail maxim: "You can't make them a customer unless you get them in the store." Having just one website for every device consolidates traffic as well, boosting a Web store's SEO rankings.

Flexibility for the Future

Responsive design is an adept solution for Internet retailers to address the complexities of a constantly growing mobile environment. However, as with any operational shift, organizations should thoroughly vet how to go about implementing responsive design before acting. A company shouldn't have to change its business practices to fit its website, its software or new business tool. There are flexible technologies that can power responsive design without disrupting an organization's current e-commerce setup.

Open source Web infrastructures such as Drupal are developed in a way that allows them to enhance an e-commerce site with minimal intrusion into its existing state. Drupal's open source nature makes it immune to proprietary boundaries by enabling interoperable data services for websites and flexible storefronts working with every kind of device.

When a company no longer has to cough up around a third of its store's budget to cover licensing fees, that money can go back into the platform to ensure the best e-commerce experience is being provided. Most importantly, a company looking to simplify its mobile strategy through responsive design can leverage an open source e-commerce solution without completely dumping its existing platform.

As mobile Internet devices become ubiquitous across the globe, mobile's share of e-commerce sales will continue to grow. For e-tailers, responsive design websites offer an effective strategy for m-commerce that will maintain its viability even as new devices are released.

Allowing one e-commerce site to do the work of several, responsive design alleviates headaches brought on by an intricate mobile environment, while lowering maintenance costs. Leveraging open source e-commerce solutions allows Internet merchants to prepare their Web stores for the future without scrapping an existing platform.

As the approach continues to advance, more Internet merchants will implement responsive design to keep their mobile strategies relevant.

Mike O'Connor is cofounder and North America president of Commerce Guys. Reach him at

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