Here’s a question for you – does it make more sense to build a mobile app for your business, or should you create a responsive website instead?

There are arguments going both ways, with some marketers arguing they’d rather build a mobile app to reach customers, and others focusing on making responsive sites, or websites that can be formatted to fit the screen sizes of all kinds of mobile devices.

But now, a report from U.S.-based market research company eMarketer is showing that actually, responsive websites tend to make more money than their mobile app counterparts.

In the report, authors pointed to a December 2013 survey by Baynote and the e-tailing group to show the difference between apps and responsive websites. While U.S. smartphone users tend to spend more time using mobile apps, 55 per cent of shoppers polled used their smartphones to access mobile sites when making purchases during the holidays. Yet only 34 per cent of shoppers bought something from using a retailer’s mobile app. eMarketer also referred to a November 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, showing 32 per cent of U.S. mobile phone users bought something online every week, using their phones.

There could be a lot of reasons as to why consumers seem to prefer responsive sites, but eMarketer put forward a few – for example, a lot of retailers have already been using mobile websites for a while. When they created mobile-optimized versions of their desktop websites, they ensured users’ experiences on the desktop and on mobile devices are the same.

Plus, the reality is that with the fierce competition to dominate users’ smartphone screens, it’s difficult for mobile shopping apps to gain any traction alongside other apps for social networking, gaming, communicating, and so on. A Nielsen survey showed that when U.S. smartphone owners are using mobile apps, shopping apps only get about two per cent of that usage time.

The other problem is with the functionality of these apps. While shopping apps can show products and services, customers who actually want to make purchases often get prompted to open a mobile browser when they decide to pay for something. That’s because a lot of retailers have web-based checkout systems, and getting developers to create an app that allows for transactions is more difficult.

Still, that doesn’t mean mobile apps will take away from sales on responsive mobile websites.

“Apps often drive incremental sales, especially for businesses that lead their most loyal shoppers there with the goal of increasing repeat shopping sessions and ultimately the lifetime value of these devoted customers,” the authors of the eMarketer report noted.

“At this point, with more retailers having mobile websites than apps and many apps lacking commerce functionality, apps are more of a driver of mobile websites sales than a threat.”

Beyond the mobile-app-or-responsive-site debate, what’s more important for marketers is to reach customers with promotions and deals they want. Mobile coupons and promo codes tend to be the top reason why shoppers gravitate towards a particular brand or retailer – not necessarily whether that company has a mobile site or app, the report’s authors wrote.

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