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As a significant chunk of shopping migrates from the desktop computer to mobile phones and tablets, retailers need to adjust. So far, their reaction has been hindered by four myths that send them scurrying in the wrong direction, according to an illuminating McKinsey & Co. report.

The consultants – Liz Ericson, Louise Herring, and Kelly Ungerman – studied mobile users in the United Kingdom, which leads North America in mobile usage even if the United States is ahead in electronic commerce. Their findings are important because too many retailers are relying on guesswork or previous iterations of electronic commerce, rather than the reality of the mobile user's screen. They figure, Ms. Ericson says, "it's small and sits on a screen, so how complicated can it be?" Well, complicated enough that the instinctive course of action for retailers – apps, and more bells and whistles for their sites – isn't particularly wise.

Here are the four myths the consultants warn against:

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Myth: The app is the answer

Mobile users seem to love apps, so retailers are madly developing them. But mobile users don't want 30 apps on their phones from different retailers, and retailers don't want to be buried deep on their phones. "Apps are easy to download. But when it's on the 19th page, it's not very helpful," Ms. Ungerman said.

Other than for Amazon, Wal-Mart, eBay and a few other outlets with a breadth of selection, apps may not be essential. Indeed, the survey found that respondents were twice as likely to use mobile sites as apps, with only 11 per cent noticing any meaningful difference between the two platforms.

While 30 per cent of mobile shoppers have more than two shopping apps, only 7 per cent have more than five. "And having an app doesn't always translate into traffic: Half of those who installed an app stopped using it entirely – whether to get content, browse products, or check for deals – if they weren't making regular purchases," the report noted.

Apps may look simple but they are complicated and expensive to build – "a dangerous path to go down," Ms. Ericson said in the interview. Mobile websites are also complicated and expensive to do well. So the consultants say the place to focus – when there is never enough money and capabilities – is on the mobile site. You need a site that is fast and stable, with no checkout problems. After that, if there are still resources and likely to be sufficient app users, go ahead.

Myth: The difference between good and great on mobile is "cool" features

In focusing on the website, don't be seduced by razzle-dazzle. Your techie may tell you that's what's needed, but the survey found that, for most people, what counts is basic functionality. Load speed, for example, matters 60 per cent more than having videos. Respondents rated the three most important factors as smooth checkout, the ease of adding and dropping items from a shopping cart, and site navigation. "I don't care if the video doesn't work well as long as my checkout is smooth," Ms. Ericson said.

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Myth: Mobile will allow people to treat retail stores as a showroom for Amazon.com

Retailers have worried for many years that online sales would cannibalize their brick-and-mortar stores. These days, the concern is more with "showrooming" – the fear that people will visit stores to see, touch and try on products, but then make their purchases online at other retailers, notably Amazon.

Certainly, more than half of smartphone owners use their phones in stores, and two-thirds of those compare prices. But most people end up buying from the retailer eventually, and 58 per cent of them do so at brick-and-mortar stores – most at the store where they started.

"So, while some 56 per cent of all consumers who have made a purchase (online or offline) conduct research online, the share of sales influenced by mobile is much greater than sales actually made by mobile. That suggests while price is important, other factors such as the in-store experience and convenience continue to play major roles in purchasing decisions," the consultants write.

Ms. Ericson said we have entered an omni-channel world, and retailers have to expect that people will employ many different ways to interact with them. Make sure the interaction is seamless, the products available, the prices the same, and the purchase easy to make.

Myth: The main value of digitization is in driving self-service

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Many retailers are lusting after the possibility of using electronic pathways to reduce staffing. But the consultants say to be effective it should be used to supplement and improve your salespeople's work, such as arming them with mobiles so they can help find products and explain features.

Ms. Ericson sums up: "Don't forget, it's still human beings using the phones. The more you can make it a little bit easier and faster, the better it will be. That doesn't mean don't be sexy. But don't screw up the regular stuff."

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail harvey@harveyschachter.com

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