Progressive web apps - the future for retail customer experience?

Dan Hartveld, 16th October 2019

Google says they deliver a 68% increase in traffic and an average 52% increase in conversions - CTO Dan Hartveld looks at PWAs and what they can do for retailers

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This article first appeared in MyCustomer

The term has been around since Google coined it in 2015, but interest has only recently taken off in progressive web apps (PWAs) as businesses in general and retailers in particular become aware of the benefits they can bring to a fast-moving industry beset with a variety of challenges.

Essentially web pages that look and feel like apps, PWAs bring together all the features users enjoy about native apps — offline access, the app shell, phone features, permanent navigation etc — and deliver the experience in a more convenient way. And if Google’s stats are to be believed, they also deliver impressive results:

  • 68% increase in mobile traffic
  • 15x faster to load and install
  • 25x less device storage required
  • 52% average increase in conversions

Aside from these remarkable figures, the most interesting features for retailers in the process of delivering their digital store are:

  • PWAs work across all devices and operating systems (important when sharing content with display and other screens)
  • They maintain state (keep the user logged in, remember preferences, baskets, search history and so on) and work offline using cached data
  • They have app-like usability (fast browsing and instant ‘page’ load)
  • They have a low ‘getting started’ barrier – no downloads, updates or compatibility issues
  • They’re easier to maintain – changes are implemented across all browsers in one go
  • They’re less effort to develop and so quicker to launch
  • PWAs are searchable – because they’re web-based, careful use of key words and search terms will make them easy to find, and responsive to customer behaviour when their first instinct is to look up a retailer on Google rather than try to find their app in an OS-specific store

The end of the road for consumer apps?

It’s a testament to the speed at which tech moves that consumer apps, once the pinnacle of retailer progressiveness, are no longer seen as making an especially positive contribution to customer experience. While they may look good and offer what initially seems to be a superior experience, for some time now the effort required to develop, release, market then keep updated an app that all the evidence suggests few customers will actually download and even fewer will use to shop, has seemed impractical and expensive.

This is backed by a recent survey by customer experience measurement experts ForeSee, which found that 68% of shoppers in the study used mobile sites over apps. And Javelin Research reported that mobile site users spend more, making an average 2.54 purchases with a monthly spend of $37, compared with 2.5 transactions and $26 monthly spend for app users.

It’s a prime example of tech development being led by customer behaviour:

  • originally, customers had no choice but to use a retailer’s website – they were slow, unwieldy and often didn’t save where they were between sessions, so they had to shop and check out in one go
  • when retailers started making apps and advertising them, out of necessity customers were happy to spend the extra time and effort downloading them because they offered a vastly better experience
  • now, if customers go to a retailer’s site and they have a PWA, they don’t have to download an app because the site gives them the online experience they need

Apps used to offer a faster, simpler and more reliable user experience, but now that web technologies have caught up and been adopted by all the major players, customers will head to websites (built as PWAs with their lower barrier to entry and great UX) over apps (that no longer provide much in additional functionality) to shop.

Successful retailers recognise that a solid, future-proof mobile strategy depends on gaining a deeper understanding of customer behaviours and desires on all platforms through analytics and a test-and-learn mentality, coupled with the ability to deliver the information and functionality to match with a flexible, integrated platform that can effectively target these segments at increasingly granular levels. Above all, it’s vital to recognise that, important though it is, mobile commerce delivered through apps or web is just one piece in a bigger omnichannel picture that must play to each touchpoint’s strengths while delivering a seamless, consistent experience that transcends specific channels.