The level of growth that the e-commerce market has seen in recent years is something that cannot be ignored. Research from eMarketer shows that retail e-commerce sales reached $2.3 trillion in 2017, has continued to increase and is set to increase to a staggering $3.5 trillion by 2021, demonstrating the continuous sea change of customer purchasing habits based around accessibility, ease of use and time saving.
Since more than half of all internet purchasing traffic is done through mobile devices, businesses need to take heed and ensure their website is primed for mobile viewing. On the face of it, Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) seem like the obvious solution to any brand looking to maintain their competitive edge, but what is a PWA exactly and is the e-commerce market ready for them?
PWAs were originally the brainchild of Google, who introduced them back in 2015 in response to an increasing need for convenient omnichannel experiences. They have since picked up vast levels of interest due to the relative ease of development and the sleek user experience they offer. PWAs are designed to be operating system agnostic, built using web technologies while offering the look and feel of a mobile app. But if we delve a bit deeper, what benefits do PWAs really offer?
The world of B2B is no longer confined within the four walls of an office. Flexible working is now the norm and often salespeople and decision makers work on the road, meaning that they may need to access information in a range of geographical areas. PWAs are designed with the capability of functioning offline, while offering the user a more streamlined, frictionless customer journey than a simple webpage or native app. The functionality of service workers means it is possible to show data that has been retrieved during previous sessions. Information is reloaded while refreshing, maintaining the same application shell, all while providing a smoother, more native experience. After reconnecting to the internet, the user then has access to easily retrieve the latest data from the server.
While PWAs are designed like mobile apps they still possess the full functionality of websites with dynamic data and database access. Users can gain an access to PWAs via URLs, therefore making them indexable by search engines. PWAs also use considerably less data than native apps, making them accessible to users based in countries that don’t offer regular access to unlimited data.
In the case of native apps, users must typically complete at least six steps before being able to use a mobile application. PWAs, however, offer immediate access to the user - eliminating timely downloading and installation stages and reducing the length of the purchasing journey.
PWAs take advantage of many platform-specific features. They can integrate with other functionalities on a device, whether it be an address book, payment information, or camera. Since buyers’ inboxes are often saturated with email newsletters, e-commerce companies must take advantage of new ways to send instant messages to their customers. PWAs offer the functionality of sending fully personalised push notifications to users. More likely to be viewed than email newsletters, these notifications allow businesses to push their messaging right onto the home screen of users’ smartphones. The need for regular updates is also removed when operating a PWA, as the user’s experience will be enhanced whenever their chosen browser is updated with the latest features and APIs.
There is often confusion surrounding the distinction between PWAs and single page applications (SPAs). Similar to PWAS, SPAs provide seamless user experiences. Where before, web users would previously be met with a momentary blank page as new pages were loading, SPAs offer a more native experience and gives the user increased continuity. Building a SPA is the initial step before creating a PWA which can cause confusion between the two. Although some companies may offer a similar user experience to PWAs through their SPA, if it does not provide the offline functionality it simply cannot be classed as a SPA.
It is clear that responsive web and native apps just aren’t enough for e-commerce companies to keep their competitive edge as this ignores the expectations of today’s mobile customer and their need for fast paced, app-like experiences and the latest features available on their device.
On top of this, PWAs may not yet be available with each user’s platform of choice. Apple still doesn’t give PWAs access to the full functionality of its devices, meaning the technology may not be practical or versatile for users of iOS.
So is the e-commerce market ready for PWAs? It can depend on each company’s specific needs and business goals. For example, smaller companies that operate with a simple online store that have just a small number of SKUs can safely assume that customers, on the whole, will know what they want when visiting the store and require little to no product customisation. In this case, they probably would not need to take advantage of the benefits that PWAs come with and it could be a costly and timely task to create one.
While PWAs in theory should be more accessible than mobile apps and offer a more consistent user experience, the technology is still very much in the process of developing and maturing.
E-commerce retailers should examine their customers’ needs and identify the elements of the purchasing journey that are more beneficial to them – this could be access to a seamless omnichannel experience or latest product information, or even being able to work offline. PWA technology is still very much in the process of developing and maturing and businesses will find that they can meet many of their customer needs using SPAs, while still readying themselves for when PWAs are rolled out across all devices. While we look forward to seeing how PWAs develop and how they’ll evolve ecommerce in the future, for now, they still have some way to go.
Arno Ham is chief product officer at Sana Commerce