February 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

E-commerce on the move

With m-commerce, consumers can shop the web wherever they may be. And as more consumers embrace the mobile web, pioneering retailers—including Amazon.com, Netflix and 1-800-Flowers—are embracing mobile sites.

Lead Photo

A commuter is sitting on a train reading a story in the newspaper on horror writer Stephen King. A passage in the story highlights King’s most recent novel, “Duma Key.” The commuter is wowed by the description of the supernatural thriller and decides it’s a must-read.

She’s ready to buy and is undeterred by the lack of a bookstore on the train or a PC or laptop to connect to a web store. Like 174 million other Americans, she has a mobile phone capable of browsing the web. So she whips it out, selects her Amazon.com bookmark, types “Duma Key” into the search window, selects “Duma Key” in the search results, and, because she has an account with Amazon.com and previously downloaded a cookie with her sign-in information, clicks on Buy Now with 1-Click. Done. And in less than 60 seconds.

“Putting a mobile site out there allows customers at the moment of impulse to interact with Amazon whenever they want,” says Sam Hall, director of wireless products at Amazon.com Inc.

What’s more...

Had she wanted to, the commuter could have viewed product details and customer reviews. She could have added the book to her shopping cart to purchase later, or added it to her Amazon Wish List. Or she could have taken advantage of a money-saving Amazon.com cross-sell and purchased “Duma Key” and another King tome, “Blaze.”

Dubbed Amazon Anywhere, the Amazon.com mobile site was created in house and launched in 2001, greatly predating today’s growing number of mobile commerce sites. It requires no special URL; Amazon.com servers automatically recognize the identifying code from a mobile web browser and mobile phone and display the version of the site that fits the phone, whether a standard mobile phone, a smartphone or a phone such as the iPhone capable of browsing standard web pages.

The 2001 version of the site was bare bones compared with today’s Amazon Anywhere, which the company reports has realized a significant increase in traffic in the last year. Over the years the e-retailer has added features and functions based on customer e-mails and comments that came in through Feedback buttons.

“People that use mobile are very passionate about it and have no problem letting us know what they like and don’t like,” Hall says.

Growth in the use of the mobile web is increasing rapidly, he adds, and the mobile realm is shaping up. “The devices have gotten a lot better, so have the networks, customers are more used to using their phone for more than just talking-all these things have come together to make the mobile environment really good,” Hall says.

The mobile web, broadly put, is web browsing on a handheld device. But there are two types of sites mobile device users can visit: a standard site, which can be rendered as the designers intended by only a tiny fraction of phones today, and a mobile-optimized site, one specially created for viewing on mobile devices. Mobile optimized sites, like Amazon Anywhere, are pared-down versions of their big brothers designed to provide content and functions simply and quickly.

“The mobile channel is ready now. In 1995, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, retailers faced the same questions: Is this new channel for real? Can it be used as a competitive weapon?” says Steve Slezak, marketing director at Digby, an m-commerce mall launched in January 2007 that includes retailers FTD Flowers, Godiva Chocolatier, Vermont Teddy Bear and Capalbo’s Giftbaskets. “Retailers who wait on the sidelines of the mobile web will find themselves playing catch-up in a channel that is poised for explosive growth. Retailers must start thinking now about mobility. Even if they do not, their competitors will.”

Waiting is the operative word. Retailers need do nothing for mobile devices such as the iPhone that can render standard web sites as they are intended to be rendered. (Many smartphones can render standard web sites, but they do so in a way that slices and dices them to fit their smaller screens.) The question is: Create a mobile-optimized site or not?

“No matter what you do with a phone, it has limited screen real estate. And the keyboard can be cumbersome from a data entry standpoint. You cannot take a big web page and shrink it down to just become smaller, it must be optimized to be a better experience for a smaller screen,” says Dilip Venkatachari, product management director, Google mobile, at Google Inc., which launched its mobile site in 2000. “The consumer propensity to transact via the mobile phone is growing tremendously. It is a very good time for retailers to look at mobile and understand what mobile-optimized sites can do to maximize brand awareness and sales.”

Still, even though the overwhelmingly vast majority of mobile devices today can access only mobile-optimized sites, some experts think creating these sites may only be a short-term solution.

“The iPhone has set the bar for a true mobile browsing experience where sites render the way they would on a PC. This is the way the mobile web is going to go,” says Cindy Krum, mobile marketing specialist at Blue Moon Works Inc., a mobile marketing consulting and technology company. “People who really want the mobile web will buy the phones capable of browsing full web pages.”

Capable phones

Regardless of the size of their phones’ screens, odds are mobile phone users have the ability to access the Internet with their devices. 243 million citizens, or 80% of the U.S. population of 303.6 million, have mobile phones, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association. Of mobile phone users, 174 million, or 72%, have phones capable of browsing the web.

Thus, 57% of the entire U.S. population use phones that can browse the Internet (individuals must sign up for wireless data service through their telecommunications providers to do so). Of U.S. citizens with mobile phones, 25%, or 60.8 million, browse the Internet from their phones; 16%, or 38.9 million, do so frequently, according to JupiterResearch LLC.

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