Mobile-first retail has been especially buzzy of late, with companies ranging from Yoox Net-a-Porter to the recently rejiggered Spring hailing it as both the natural customer evolution and the future of their businesses.

“Our goal is to transform this company to focus on mobile, because that’s where the customer is going,” announced Federico Marchetti, CEO of Yoox Net-a-Porter, at the launch of the company’s tech hub in early July. That hub is part of the company’s larger plan to increase total mobile sales from 50 percent to 75 percent by 2020.

Stephan Schambach, founder and CEO of NewStore, a mobile commerce platform that works with brands like Adidas, believes this is the wise, and only, move. “In a few years, retail will be a smartphone-only business,” he said. While that might be hyperbolic, the rising popularity of mobile commerce can’t be denied.

In 2016, 211 million Americans shopped online and 64 percent, or 136 million, of them made purchases via mobile, according to the latest research from Shopgate. That number is expected to grow to 68 percent, or 147 million, by the end of this year.

“Retail is one of many industries that’s quickly learning to put its best foot forward with consumers, and in this climate, that means mobile-first,” said Jason Beckerman, CEO and co-founder of Unified, a business intelligence platform. “While this has been top of mind for some time, the mentality [for most] has been ‘mobile-friendly,’ rather than ‘first.’”

Here’s a look at how the mobile-first and mobile-friendly differ, and why mobile-first is expected to alter the shopping landscape going forward.

Exactly how is mobile-first retail different from mobile-friendly?
Mobile-friendly refers to companies who have made sure their desktop experience translates well and is easily digestible on a mobile device. Mobile-first, on the other hand, takes this a step further, said Beckerman: “planning the initial customer journey on a mobile device and making sure it can be translated the reverse way, onto a desktop.”

This means building out everything — from browsing to buying, to customer service — from the ground up on mobile, so that no desktop use is ever necessary.

That requires an “exceedingly user-friendly interface,” said Stefan Weitz, the executive vice president at Radial, an omnichannel operations company. At the least, that involves a website or branded app with large touch targets, a simple menu and easy navigation.

Got it. So, is one approach better than the other?
Today, 85 percent of retailers have optimized their websites to be mobile-friendly, but only 22 percent have launched a mobile app — which is typically part of the mobile-first model. Schambach sees this as a massive missed opportunity. “Native shopping apps are known to increase conversion and spending,” he said.

This is currently up for debate, as some numbers indicate otherwise — but the overall growth of mobile commerce does show promise for the bottom line. A recent study from Invesp found that people who shop online using their mobile devices tend to spend twice as much across all digital channels as those who don’t use their phones to shop.

As the number of people relying on mobile commerce grows, retailers need to know that only having an “OK” mobile presence will not be enough to obtain customers and drive positive outcomes, argues Michael Levine, vice president of marketing at the omnichannel experience provider Photon. “By going mobile-first, retailers are actively striving to meet their customers’ needs and wants where they are most and not simply focusing on the end transaction,” he said.

If mobile-first is such a good idea, why aren’t more companies taking that approach?
In short, because it’s hard. Building a new mobile experience from the ground up — and one that works across all mobile devices — requires time and money that many brands are loath to invest. It’s why many opt instead for the mobile-friendly shortcut.

“It requires much more than a ‘tweak’ in technology — it requires a transformation of the entire organization, which encompasses people, processes and culture,” said Schambach.

“There are many complexities involved,” agreed Levine, of Photon, citing a well-thought-out API and microservices framework, a simple UI and a flawless UX. “The average shopping app just doesn’t cut it.”