Selling on a Small Screen

Mobile is the fastest-growing form of retail – so why are brands struggling to keep up?

Mobile is the fastest growing form of retail – so why are brands struggling to keep up?


Mobile retail is the star performer of e-commerce. In 2021, global mobile sales are predicted to hit $3.56 trillion. And yet scrolling through most retailers’ mobile sites and apps, the products look…indistinguishable? Missable? Hardly legible?


Demand has created format and variant fragmentation on an unprecedented scale, yet consumers are less loyal or patient to those favourites they demand, setting up stumbling blocks for brand owners. Take shampoo. A search for a well-known global anti-dandruff brand on a popular retailer’s mobile app yields 36 results. There are 5 sizes and 8 fragrances, as well as designated men’s versions – surely the choice should capture even the most specific consumer’s demand. But they’re all in identically shaped bottles, with similar dominant colour palettes, and with each product image measuring no more than 2cm x 0.5cm on a standard iPhone screen. Looking at it from a sofa, it’s hard to distinguish the product required. From a bus, train or walking…oh I give up. The retailer just lost a sale. Perhaps the shopper still buys that shampoo at a store on the next corner. Or buys another option that catches their eye there, and the brand just lost a sale.

Perhaps the shopper is searching for “hand soap” to add to their basket while on their commute home. They’re looking for their usual brand, but scrolling in a rush, they can’t easily find it, so they buy something else. So that brand – a brand they felt some previous loyalty to – has just lost a sale. If the alternative product performs well, they may have lost the customer altogether.


Research from the University of Cambridge and Unilever highlighted this issue, and ways to overcome it. The solution is simple: put the shopper experience front and centre when delivering mobile imagery, rather than making it a by-product of design aimed at on-shelf displays, a form of retail in decline. Consider the environment and context, screen size, scrolling, their brand’s visual identity and their range’s complexity – and then create appropriately mobile-optimised imagery that makes it easy for consumers to find your brand, in the right format and variant, and the right size.