September 27, 2007, 12:00 AM

Less Is More

In m-commerce design, simplicity, speed, and consideration for the customer are keys to success.

Ringtones, absolutely. Songs, sure. Maybe even the latest episode of Heroes. But using a cell phone to buy actual stuff-a book, a bouquet, a DVD-remains for the most part a painful experience, like Internet shopping circa 1994, with pioneer browser Mosaic on a dial-up connection. It’s the same erratic performance, the same scanty selection of shops, the same annoying wait to download and upload.

Back then, a casual shopper could be forgiven for thinking that this Internet thing would never go anywhere. But look what happened.

Now’s the time

Now’s the time that retailers should be experimenting with mobile commerce-now, when relatively few of their customers are thinking about the phone as a shopping device, when they can try a basic m-commerce site with minimal outlay, when they can make their mistakes before it gets too costly and when the number of customers they will alienate is small. Remember when a web site ceased to be a novelty and customers started to be irked not to find their faves online? That same shift in m-commerce will come in the next few years in the U.S., and has already started to happen overseas.

“If retailers want to be ready when the market is ready, they have to start now,” says Norman Sadeh, director of the mobile commerce lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Networks are getting faster, phones are getting smarter, and more users are accessing the Internet through their phones. “A mobile site may not be a major source of revenue now, but they can’t afford not to enter,” he says.

And the debut of the iPhone-even though its market share is small and select-will only accelerate the trend by inducing users to “think different” about what a phone can do. “It raises the bar, and that’s welcome from the consumer’s standpoint,” Sadeh says. The iPhone lets users surf the actual web. While it takes good eyes to read a web page on an iPhone, the technology lets users zoom in on relevant portions of the page.

Jason Taylor, vice president of mobile products for site developer Usablenet, New York, says the iPhone has caused a rush of interest in mobile sites from businesses that haven’t tried the territory before.

Sexy sites

“The iPhone has made mobile sites sexy,” he says. The company optimizes for iPhone, adapting web pages to its size and bandwidth limitations, but it’s still a richer experience than on a standard cell phone. Usablenet recently entered the retail arena with an m-commerce site for 1-800-Flowers, but it numbers several major airlines and hotel chains among its mobile clients.

Mobile sites for the average cell phone should be like haiku, distilling a big retail web site down to its essence. With screens the size of a large commemorative stamp, browser software from at least seven possible carriers, and handset controls that have literally hundreds of small variations depending on manufacturer and model, cell phones are a web developer’s nightmare. Stripping things down is the first step. A logo is fine, but striving to reproduce the whole branding environment of the web is futile from a design standpoint and probably unwelcome to the customer.

“We launched our mobile site to answer the question, ‘How do we help our customers with the need-it-now, ASAP mindset?’” says Vibhav Prasad, senior director of web merchandising at 1-800-Flowers, whose mobile site debuted earlier this year in time for Mother’s Day. “How do you present what’s really important to your customers? They don’t have a lot of real estate on their screen, and not a lot of patience, given the speed at which mobile customers access the web.”

The company’s answer was to focus on the thing their customers are most likely to want to do on the run: order flowers or other gifts for same-day delivery. The first menu choice on the mobile site links to the items available for delivery that day. The other choices are for the company’s top three occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, and get well.

The full web site allows customers to place multiple orders for multiple recipients at the same time. The mobile site doesn’t, because most phone users aren’t interested in doing anything that complicated. However, it does leverage all the information available in an existing customer’s account, to keep keying to an absolute minimum. It takes maybe half-a-dozen clicks from opening screen to completed order.

Saving the sale

GourmetStation, an Atlanta-based delivery service for gourmet meals, launched a mobile effort a few months back because its vendor, Seattle-based mPoria, made a strong case, says founder Donna Lynes-Miller. “I asked mPoria why now, and they said first, because your competitors are going to do it eventually, and second because it’s another way to get your products to your existing customers.”

She concedes that the mobile site is plain to the point of ugliness-just a small logo and a list of ten options-but it offers most of the company’s 200 or so products, mostly three- or four-course dinners delivered overnight or scheduled for a specific occasion. She’d like to get some images associated with the listings, but has to balance their selling power with the time it takes to load them. Since most of GourmetStation’s mobile customers have previously ordered through the web site, they’re familiar with the product and have less need to see before they buy.

After three months, the mobile site accounts for less than 1% of GourmetStation’s sales, but Lynes-Miller is still glad to have joined the mobile game. “Gift giving is our core business and delivering on the right date is as important as the product itself,” she says. “I want to have the mobile option so our customers can order even if they’re traveling.”

Once the basic site is established, it’s time to think about the unique capabilities of combining the mobile web, text messaging, and the information stored in the phone itself.

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