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Time to write off the tablet?

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Demandware’s latest quarterly Shopping Index reveals many interesting things about e- and m-commerce: mobile is rapidly catching up with desktop; 80% of millennials are likely to experience your brand for the first time on a phone; 62% of mobile sales are on iOS, the rest on Android (Windows Mobile didn’t figure). But perhaps the starkest figure is that tablets seem to be in terminal decline as an m-commerce platform.

According to the study, just 11% of e-commerce traffic and 14% of sales come through tablets – figures that have dropped by 19 and 10% respectively in a year. Is the tablet dead as an e-commerce platform?

Many studies over the past year have revealed a general slowing of tablet sales and traffic figures for tablets has begun to slide, but writing off the tablet as a force in m-commerce would be hasty.

For starters, as Demandware’s study itself declares: “While tablets are being crowded out, don’t overlook the impact this will have on computers. The larger ‘pro’ editions of tablets will compete for laptop attention and usage. Keep your UX team close for optimizing tap devices overall – certainly for phone, but also for larger screens that may transition to tap as well”.

Sound advice. Pro-sized tablets are pretty new to the market and sales have been sluggish, but they do promise much and will, I am confident, begin to offer a replacement to the home PC – the desktop of e-commerce – in time.

Then there are the hybrid computers such as Microsoft’s Surface and others that feature a detachable screen that also allows for touch and acts pretty much like a tablet. Again, these are starting to make in roads into the PC market and could well replace standard laptops and even desktops in the years ahead.

The hierarchical food chain approach of Apple – very high end desktops, super powerful laptops, net books, pro tablets, tablets, mini tablets, large smartphones and now ‘cheap’ small iPhones – would on the face of it look to keep the ‘computer’ alive and well, but it is likely that the operating systems of these will slowly merge so that eventually using my MacBook Pro will essentially be as ‘m-commerce’ as if I had used my iPad or my iPhone 6S Plus.

And this is the rub. Really what distinguishes ‘mobile’ from ‘traditional’ e-commerce is a combination of screen size, OS and location. What this really means for retailers is that several design considerations need to be applied to how a website renders – something that adaptive-responsive web design already yields for most people – and that should be it.

But more than that, it’s not really about the device at all: it’s about the context of the device. Knowing where the device is and what is being looked for is what is going to shape how retailers know what to serve up to consumers.

What does this mean for tablets? Well, the rule of thumb is that desktop is fixed and is a ‘lean-in’ technology; smartphones are truly mobile so are location dependent; and tablets kind of hang between the two – but are more likely to be an ‘on-the-sofa-second-screen’ or a tea break browse in the office. But it may too be out in the street, on a train or even a plane or perhaps even in the bath.

It is understanding these contexts – and not the screen size or device footprint – that is going to be really key to how retailers treat devices. If tablets do ‘die’ then there will be something else that takes their place and its context. Retailers need to design UXs that work across devices and screen sizes – which they have to do already – but also look at what content is served based on the where and when and what, rather than the device.

The tablet is, I am confident, here to stay – it just needs to find its place. In my house it has become a shared utility that sits on the sofa that we all use to look stuff up, play games, Facetime the rellies and watch movies. In your’s it is probably something different again. Understand how each is being used – rather than whether it is a tablet or a phone or a laptop is the key.

And then there is the fact that stores will soon be arming shop assistants with tablets to improve the in store experience (and context!) – but that’s another story….

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