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Debenhams mobile strategy: We’re only interested in iPhone users

Terence Eden recently highlighted a fascinating real life example of a consumer brand that’s only got eyes for iPhone.

Debenhams is a chain of 153 department stores in the UK. They’re hugely popular and serve a wide variety of demographics. They’re for everyone from your grandmother to your 14 year old niece, right?

Which is why Terence was surprised to find one of their newspaper advertisements featuring a QR code. That’s fine — if a little bit techie — but what really confused him was the requirement for you to download the Debenhams iPhone app. You then need to use that app to scan the QR code. That would then give you 10% discount on some beauty / fragrance products.

Over to Terence:

What? Let me count the ways this is wrong…

  • What on earth does “shop the ad” mean? Is it a typo for “scan the ad”?
  • Roughly 5% of Debenhams customers have an iPhone – why is this restricted just to them?
  • I don’t know how many people have already downloaded the Debenhams app – but fewer than 500 people have rated it. With an average rating of 3* – it’s unlikely many more will grab it.

Requiring customers to download the iPhone app is highly restrictive. Yes it’s certainly cool, but the crazy fact is, most of Debenhams customers will not be using iPhones.

How should Debenhams have handled this?

Well, Terence reckons they should have enabled the QR code to point to a mobile website. I’d have gone further: Definitely use mobile web first, so that everyone with a browser-enabled handset can play (and that is a LOT of people — indeed almost anyone with a handset purchased in the last 4 years, basically).

I’d have put a shortcode on the advert and asked customers to text ‘perfume’ to 80111 (or something like that). Then I’d have sent them back a thank-you text featuring both a ‘code’ for the till (“show this text at check out for 10% discount”) along with a mobile web link featuring more information, perhaps a scannable barcode (for the handsets that are capable) and a few more bits of relevant information. After all, if you’re sitting on the train and the newspaper advertisement catches your eye, you’ll probably be quite happy to have a browse around a mobile microsite, whether you’re using an iPhone or a £70 Nokia.

Interestingly, Ruth from Debenhams saw Terence’s post and replied. Here’s what she had to say:

Hi Terence, I work at Debenhams and noticed this post regarding our use of QR codes. We thought you might be interested in some information about our customers’ mobile usage. iPhone users are the largest percentage of smartphone users for Debenhams customers and so we felt it was a good place to start targeting this activity. We do however have plans to develop the app for further handsets and ultimately want to develop a mobile site so that all smartphone users can shop for Debenhams products on their phones. We know we need to keep developing this offering, and we’re expecting to learn along the way and all feedback is really useful, so thank you!

I’m hugely disappointed to see that — yet again — another huge company has jumped aboard the ‘well, obviously, we need to look at smartphones’ viewpoint and completely ignored the rest of the country’s highly capable devices.

Yes, your 8 year old monochrome Ericsson can’t handle mobile web. But it can STILL handle text messaging. And surely you want to encourage as many people as possible to be able to interact with your brand?

The argument that iPhone users ‘are the largest percentage of smartphone users for Debenhams’ is massively disappointing.

So what about Android, BlackBerry or Nokia smartphone users?

I think what Ruth means to say is that Debenhams couldn’t be bothered to support those devices. That their mobile agency — whoever they are — didn’t really want to get involved in making apps for those other platforms. Or Debenhams didn’t want to pay.

But why are they fixed on a mobile app strategy? Where’s the mobile web — that works for almost EVERYONE? And what about ‘gracefully failing’ to ensure 100% compatibility by using SMS?

Not fun enough? Not cool enough?

Highly limited thinking.

Here’s Alex Meisl, Chairman & Co-Founder of Sponge Group explaining why this kind of strategy from this kind of brand is rather frustrating to see:

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

17 replies on “Debenhams mobile strategy: We’re only interested in iPhone users”

Although I would like to agree to the comments, I feel debenhams like any other brand tries out new tech on its early adopter customer base, and I guess they feel that people who have the iphone fall into that category and are more likely to use the QR code.

Of course if the Qr code gives good returns, I am sure they will open it out onto other platforms.

Completely agree – I’ve been telling friends & colleagues for years that having a mobile friendly web page (esp. for online retail) is far more important than jumping on the app-wagon. Unless your using some super special hardware dependent functionality and, particularly, in an off-line environment, then why bother with an app at all, when a decent HTML5 site can do almost everything you need, and for the majority of smartphone (or even normal phone with Opera, say) users.

Are there any retail companies that you’ve seen are doing “mobile” well?

I’d have expected by now that the iPhone isn’t at all an early adopter phone any more – all my phone geek friends either have left Apple or are considering it and it’s the non-technical people who are buying iPhones. A lot of them are only getting them because they like the style, and there’s still somewhat of an air about the whole thing – they’re not considering anything else because TBH all phones are free in the UK if you try hard enough. I don’t think I personally know anyone who I’d class as an early adopter who still uses one.

While I’d agree that this looks like a *really stupid* thing to do and you shouldn’t at all make any assumptions based on limited anecdotes, perhaps they have some demographic surveys to back it up and it’s not entirely based on the iPhone=smartphone=cool meme. iPhones MUST have spread out into the general populace by now, or they’ve got big problems coming up very soon.

The number one selling smartphone in the UK is a BlackBerry last time I looked. With HTC, Samsung, iPhone and Nokia hot on their heels.

iPhone is a small percentage of total handsets in the UK.

iPhone-only is a perfectly fine strategy if your only target market is rich and affluent. Witness, for example, the ‘Burberry app’ or the ‘Mulberry app’. Debenhams have 153 stores across the UK precisely because they want to target as many segments as possible.

One would imagine, anyway.

5% of Debenhams customers may have a iPhone but I bet you it accounts for 70%+ of mobile traffic.

The biggest mistake in this whole ‘mobile web first’ movement is assuming that creating something that everyone can access will get you more engagement, more activity and eventually higher sales than a app.

That just isn’t true.

Think about it, if those non-iPhone handsets give you more reach and engagement, that would show in traffic, the argument of ‘yeah those guys hit the site, realise it’s not mobile optimised, then never come back’ is flawed because that initial visit would be recorded and would show in bounce rates. It isn’t.

The reality is that a retailer like Debenhams would have a limited budget for mobile (like most businesses we meet) and you have to make a business decision based on numbers. If your stats show that the majority of your visits and sales come from one device, who are you going to try and optimise for? Especially when the reality is that even if you optimise for everyone, they still aren’t likely to buy more.

I work for a number of high street retailers, brands and the like, and get to see all of their analytics. I’ve yet to see anything less than 70% iPhone visits when they first come to us for a solution. iPhone users still account for 80-90% of non-optimised sales.

One thing I learnt at Nokia is that m-commerce usage has a direct correlation to type of handset (I can explain all the details some other time maybe) .You may think that serving a site to everyone with a Nokia would get you more sales than just a iPhone app, but that isn’t true.

Nokia spend millions of handset ‘segmentation’ research, you can tell a lot about someone from the handset they have and I can see that reflected in the data I’m seeing.

Here’s a challenge, can you find a mobile commerce site that performs better than it’s app equivalent?

eBay is possibly the best example of this, massive diverse user base, started their mobile web version in 2006/7, iPhone version comes out in 2009, makes $400 million in a year, whilst all of eBays other mobile activity (SMS, WAP etc) makes $100 million. Same sort of thing happened with Pizza Hut.

So while everyone shouts “A APP ISN’T A MOBILE STRATEGY” “iPHONE ELITISTS” and all that other mess you got to realise, we’re in tough times still, brands don’t have hundreds of thousands of pounds to chuck into a channel they’ve never been into before. This is new, they are learning, we are learning.

Downloading the app to scan the QR code is a bit silly tho.

That is all

One small point to make about this.
If your analytics package is entirely based on JavaScript – as many are – you won’t be seeing many non-iphone hits.
That’s because iPhone has great support for JS, many phones (including smartphones) don’t have JS – or only have rudimentary support.

If you’re looking at your raw logs (and assuming you’re not behind a CDN) you’ll get a very different picture of your mobile traffic than your analytics would suggest.

Reading between the lines you’re saying…

Just targeting iPhone users is fine because they will download any old rubbish in to their phone, whether it’s relevant or not.

I don’t think that you’ll find that we are saying anyone is being elitist for this strategy, just short sighted and stupid.

No these phones are showing up on the analytic, just in single digit visits.

You know Google Analytics supports low-end devices? They don’t use javascript to track, check it out things have changed.

You’re saying that iPhone users provide higher rates of engagement. Supported by the 70% figure you have literally plucked out of thin air. That assumption would have carried weight in 2008. In todays mobile device and browser spread, you’re way off the mark. Go read the InMobi stats if you want to get up to speed with this.

If Debenhams advertise…
“We have offers available from our mobile friendly web site” they will get a stack of traffic from many different platforms. If they had deployed the QR code to lead customers directly to this site, Android users would have snapped this up in droves.

But no, they clearly listened to someone with your strategic nouse, spunked their entire budget on an iPhone app and then had no idea what to do with it. Maybe their mobile strategy expert was getting pissed in Vodka Revolution and fantasising about enormous social benefits of networked kettles.

Debenhams are wrong. Any brand targeting iPhone first is wrong. Any brand targeting Android first or second is very wrong.

ComScore measured European installed base with these stats for Q3 of 2010: Symbian 54% (most of that is Nokia as Symbian’s second biggest market is Japan where there is no Nokia); Apple 19%, Microsoft 12%, RIM 8%, Android 6%.

That’s just smartphones. Just a small proportion of total phones – phones which all, like it or not, can send/receive SMS. And many of which have some sort of data allowance so could potentially view mobile web pages. And probably all of which can run J2ME which now has many less problems than it used to have.

The point is not to say brands should all be targetting J2ME, pick what you want. BUT AT LEAST SERVE YOUR CUSTOMERS. Or if you’re a digital agency pull your head out of Apple’s backside and serve your client’s customers.

Shock horror: most people don’t have iPhones, and never will. Heresy. But also truth.

Deliver to what customers have now, and will have. IDC said Q3 of 2010 market shares of European smartphone sales were: Nokia 32%, Apple 25%, RIM 16%, SonyEricsson 11%, HTC 7%. Again, non smartphone sales are much bigger than smartphones.

No excuses. Brands are currently wrong where they target iPhone first (or even second or third), and digital agencies that lead innocent (and ignorant) brands up that garden path are doing no one any favours. Nor do they have the commercial software developer’s excuse of going where the money is – the brand’s paying and the apps are frequently free and without 3rd party advertising.

This all needs to change.

I have to agree 100% with Murat.
Spot on with everything he says.

Of course in a perfect world, major retail brands would be fully mobile enabled, but in today’s day and age, it is really only Apple who have got their s*&t together in creating something that an agency can sell and pitch easily to a client. All of the other major manufacturers have come up (and still come up) short in various areas. Apple have hit the nail on the head every time.

That’s the reality unfortunately. While I, too, lament the fact that major retail ignores the 80+% of the market – can you really blame them?

Like it or not – the Brands are the one who pay the money. Money Talks.
We can preach to them as much as we like and tell them they are wrong and then throw a hissy fit and tell them that they are going to fail. Guess what? They are the customer and I cannot think of one instance where a customer has ever turned around and said, “you know what, you are right. We were wrong. Here is the money for our new campaign. Things are so much clearer now”.

The Brands don’t care what we think. The way they see it – iPhone traffic is rich, it’s easier to understand and it’s easier to explain to the CEO, CFO or Board. When the rest of the industry catch up and see the big picture from all points of view (not just from a technological point of view), then we will see the full market being served. Until then, it is just not worth a Brands time or money.

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