Buying stuff on your phone still sucks. Here's why

Mobile shopping is often a lousy experience, but things are getting better. You just have to be patient.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
4 min read

On a Friday this month in Manhattan's Madison Square Park, I chatted with a handful of people about what it was like for them to buy T-shirts, toothpaste or TVs on their phones. I got an earful.

"It's difficult to move around and look for other options," Munaf Tinwala, a 42-year-old chemical engineer from Long Island, told me.

"It's just a hassle," 22-year-old Macarena Dawson, of Queens, said.

The most striking aspect: This was the exact thing I heard from consumers last year. Despite the tech industry racing to build self-driving cars and colonize Mars, it continues to fail at the far simpler task of making it easy to purchase toilet paper on your phone.

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Chloe Louise Smith, 26, from Nottingham, England, uses her phone to buy plane tickets, but prefers a laptop since she can type faster.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

As phones become the next big platform for retail, nailing the shopping experience on these small screens is critical for consumers, merchants and payment companies. Better mobile browsing and purchasing could change buying habits, speeding up the shift of spending from physical stores to digital.

Adobe predicts phones will be the leading electronic device for purchasing in the US by early 2018; it's the PC, by far, today. When that switch happens, it could allow you to buy just about anything in a flash during a moment of downtime on the phone. But it may mean you're likely to spend even more time with Amazon or eBay, ignoring more traditional retailers that haven't invested in mobile.

"I think over time, what you will definitely see is the mobile phone and mobile platforms will be the predominant way to pay," Jennifer Bailey, vice president of Apple Pay, said in an interview earlier this month.

Mobile shopping still stinks

For now, though, buying stuff on a phone is often terrible, so at least for this Cyber Monday you're likely still buying stuff on a laptop, with its big screen and full physical keyboard.

While people are buying on mobile websites and apps a lot more -- up 65 percent from last year -- consumers are three times more likely to complete a purchase on a PC than a phone, according to an Adobe mobile retail report released last month. That's resulted in PCs bringing in 75 percent of retailers' online sales this year, versus just 16 percent from phones, the report said. (Overall, e-commerce still accounts for less than 10 percent of US retail sales.)

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Here are consumers' biggest gripes with shopping on phones, broken down by age ranges. There are, to put it lightly, a lot of issues.


To consumers, phone screens are too small, pinch-to-zoom features aren't available in mobile apps, it's hard to find things easily, and checkout using that tiny touchscreen keyboard is a pain. When people do buy on mobile, they make smaller purchases than on desktops, Adobe found.

"You're not shopping, you're buying," said Tamara Gaffney, an analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. "That's a really big problem."

Retailers stand to lose billions of dollars in sales if they don't get their act together, Adobe said. And consumers will continue to be frustrated when trying to buy.

Just wait another year. OK, maybe longer

You can look ahead to a better shopping experience, even if it takes a few years.

"There's still a lot of work that's left to be done," said Matt Barr, Mastercard's senior vice president for digital payments. "But there's clearly a light at the end of the tunnel."

eBay said it's adding more organization, personalization and comparison shopping tools to its catalogue of over 1 billion ever-changing listings. That should help the e-retailer fill mobile screens with more relevant information for each shopper.

Amazon is also decluttering its app to make the experience as simple and "glance-able" as possible, said Amazon spokeswoman Angie Newman. Both e-commerce heavyweights are pushing mobile notifications to encourage customers to keep opening their apps.

Buying even more from Amazon

Since most retailers don't have popular apps with your saved personal information or big teams of mobile software developers, big e-retailers like Amazon and eBay could have a huge leg up on the competition as mobile grows in importance. Amazon already has a massive lead on desktop.

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Robert Broadbent likes browsing on Nike's SNKRS sneakerhead app and JackThreads menswear app, but said he most often uses Amazon or eBay on his phone.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

There are several efforts involving checkout that might help all those mobile dollars spread around to more merchants. Apple Pay and PayPal are quickly expanding their mobile-payments services to more apps and mobile sites, making it easier to complete purchases. Google's Android Pay, Mastercard's Masterpass and Visa Checkout offer similar services, though all these options need to grow to get broad mobile appeal.

This work is starting to pay off, with this Black Friday marking the first day in US retail history to hit over $1 billion in sales from phones and tablets.

"We think the momentum is fantastic and we believe it will continue," Bailey, of Apple Pay, said.

Other features coming from eBay and Amazon, like personalization or voice shopping, will be harder for traditional retailers to replicate. Still, some smaller sellers are getting better at the mobile game, offering attractive apps that use big pictures, app-exclusive items and easy browsing to entice customers.

Back on the street in Manhattan, Robert Broadbent, a 29-year-old from Brooklyn, clicked through the JackThreads men's clothing app, which he said was fun to shop even if he wasn't looking to buy anything.

"The mobile apps have to offer something better than a desktop," he said. "Give me a reason to go on there."