Earlier this year, a Knowledge at Wharton article titled “Can an App-only E-commerce Model Succeed in India?” looked at the pros and cons of adopting an app-only e-commerce strategy. The debate was sparked by Myntra, India’s leading fashion e-tailer, which had announced in May of last year that it was going the app-only route. It claimed to be the first big web-based e-tailer, not just in India but globally, to adopt an app-only model.

However, now Myntra has reversed that decision: On June 1, it relaunched its desktop website.

When the company announced its app-only strategy last year, nearly 90% of traffic and 70% of the company’s business was happening through its app, and Myntra seemed convinced that was the way ahead. However, a few months later, it brought back its mobile (phone and tablet) website. Myntra insisted that this was not a roll-back of its app-only strategy. At that time, CEO Ananth Narayanan said: “The mobile website will push users toward downloading the app. We are committed to our strategy of app-only.”

Myntra, Narayana said, had two primary reasons for going app-only. One, because they are personal devices, mobile phones enable a personalized experience. Two, mobile phones are the future of computing devices. Both premises continue to be true. So what sparked the return to the desktop?

Narayanan explained the roll-back rationale: “The biggest reason is the feedback from consumers, especially women. According to our data, women customers, who are a key area of focus for us, in particular, want to have the option of shopping across channels. In addition, as we enter the next phase of our rapid growth, we’re launching home furnishing and jewelry where viewing intricate patterns [on larger screens] leads to better purchase decisions.”

“Their app-only strategy certainly got them some media attention, but it doesn’t seem to have served a business purpose.” –Rishikesh Krishnan

According to Narayanan, while Myntra believes in “taking bold calls and pushing innovation,” it is “humble enough to listen to [its] customers.” He says: “We [took a bold call] last year because we thought we could offer consumers a much better experience on the mobile. While it is still true that the mobile experience is far superior to the web, we have recognized that some consumers still want the option to shop on the web.”

A Worthwhile Experiment?

Rishikesh Krishnan, director of the Indian Institute of Management Indore, questions what Myntra achieved through its app-only experiment. “Cutting off a channel doesn’t make sense unless the channel costs were exceeding benefits or the use of that channel was resulting in wrong positioning. Myntra’s app-only strategy certainly got them some media attention, but doesn’t seem to have served a business purpose.”

Kartik Hosanagar, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions who wrote a case study on Myntra two years ago, believes there could be some “potential side benefit” from the app-only experiment: It would have helped inculcate a mobile-only mindset in the firm. “Even if the mobile-only strategy didn’t work, I suspect that mobile-first is still the way to go. So the changes in the company culture and mobile product will continue to be beneficial even if the strategy wasn’t the best one,” he says.

Hosanagar thinks it’s an “interesting move” by Myntra to bring back the desktop website. “I was personally supportive of the original move to become app-only. It was bold and surprising…. The decision to revert likely reflects the fact that many customers still prefer an end-to-end desktop experience. Further, mobile commerce is associated with lower average order value.”

Harminder Sahni, founder and managing director of management consultancy firm Wazir Advisors, says: “As far as I understand, the reason to go app-only was based on the belief that consumers were moving to smart phones so fast that there was no point in keeping the website on. Additionally, the cost of keeping the website and app both technically up-to-date for giving seamless and same-quality experience is quite expensive. While on the business side this may be the right move to not lose on any sales that may have been lost from the website, I am unsure of the technical costs that may be too high to justify the move. The trend towards smart phones is only becoming stronger.”

Sahni is not really convinced that shoppers will insist on a website “if they were getting the real value from Myntra in terms of range, choice, price and convenience.” These, he says, are the reasons for success or failure of any retailer, whether offline or online. Pointing out that online retailers in general are becoming less attractive for consumers as they are unable to offer hefty discounts as earlier, Sahni adds: “Having lost momentum, Myntra may be wanting to bring back some of the consumers they lost due to closure of the website. But I believe that it may not help much as the issue lies elsewhere.”

“Even if the mobile-only strategy didn’t work, I suspect that mobile-first is still the way to go.” –Kartik Hosanagar

A Different Danger: Brand Erosion

Sahni suggests that Myntra needs to focus on “bringing real value” to consumers rather than worrying about “the technicalities” of being an app-only or otherwise player. “If they have the right brands, a wide offering, great user experience pre- and post-sales and a reasonable customer loyalty program, customers will even borrow their neighbor’s smart phone to use the Myntra app.”

The real danger for Myntra could lie in its brand erosion. Myntra has built a very strong brand name for itself in the fashion category. But a new move to get into home furnishing may erode its image as a fashion leader. Says Sahni: “Myntra seems to be diluting its own brand by trying to sell bedsheets and then justifying bringing back its website by saying consumers want to see these big sheets on big screen. By that logic, they should be selling on TV shopping networks. But why bedsheets in the first place?”

Meanwhile, Myntra has company. Food startup Faasos, for instance, which went app-only last year, reintroduced the desktop channel a few months ago. In a media interview, Revant Bhate, head of marketing at Faasos, said: “Over the past three or fo­ur months, we found that users were not using m­obiles alone to place orders; they were also using desktops and tablets. We did not want to isolate our loyal use­rs who used the Windows platform. We have now enabled a Windows-based mobile site, which can also be used on all the periphery devices such as tablets and desktops. Technically, our str­ategy cannot be called app-only now.” And fashion e-tailer Voonik, which launched as app-only in 2014, added a desktop website in November last year to cater to a larger consumer base.

Clearly, in the age of the smart phone, desktop continues to have its own place.