May 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

The Mobile Man

The e-commerce director is a fixture in retail organization charts. But Sears is among the first to have an m-commerce chief.

By Bill Siwicki

One day in early 2007, Thomas Emmons, a new member of the innovation group at Sears Holdings Corp., was tapped on the shoulder by the vice president of e-commerce and asked to draft a strategy on what mobile technology in e-commerce could look like for the retailing giant. Emmons got to work. Before long, the e-commerce chief summoned Emmons to the office of the chief information officer. The e-commerce chief introduced Emmons to the CIO as Sears’ new mobile team leader.

That was news to Emmons.

He hadn’t even completed his strategy and the company had decided mobile commerce was so important it needed its own leader. Excited, Emmons dug back in and finished his presentation that showed how text messaging could be used in marketing and order online/pickup in-store, how a mobile commerce web site could help customers on the go or even in a store looking for more information and reviews, and how downloadable mobile applications were on the horizon.

The big pitch

The vice president of e-commerce, Rob Mills, then took Emmons and his mobile strategic plan before the CIO and other top Sears executives. Emmons made his pitch. The reaction? Sears gave Emmons and Mills the green light.

Two short years later, Sears boasts a popular m-commerce site (Sears2go.com), a strong text messaging program, and a new iPhone application that leverages GPS and personalization technologies to create a unique mobile shopping experience for every customer.

“Tom’s varied background in technology and innovation, his willingness to wear multiple hats, and his ability in leveraging new technologies to simplify rather than complicate solutions made him ideal for this spot,” Mills says.

In the past few years, an increasing number of retailers have begun text message marketing campaigns and launched m-commerce sites, making significant bets on the future of mobile commerce. Other retailers are hesitant, taking a wait-and-see approach.

But as more consumers switch from conventional phones to smartphones-and their numbers are growing fast, thanks in large part to the iPhone-and gain access to faster 3G wireless data networks, they are expecting site publishers and retailers to provide rich mobile web experiences optimized for their devices of choice.

Mobile innovation

Because Sears has been in business since 1893, it knows how to tell the difference between a trend and a fad. It concluded mobile would be an important and permanent part of its multichannel strategy moving forward. And, more than most retailers getting started in m-commerce, it’s put its money where its mouth is in the form of Tom Emmons. And it changed the name of its innovation group. Today it’s the mobile/innovation group.

“Mobile is the most graspable of the kinds of new technology,” Emmons says. “The world is really changing. If I go to my wife’s parents’ house on the weekend, for example, I can bring my iPhone and leave my laptop at home. If as a retailer you don’t have an answer for that, you are really going to be left out. A lot has happened in the last eight to 10 months, especially with the release of the iPhone 3G where the vast majority of our mobile traffic comes from.”

Sears created the post of mobile team leader to have someone who could stay on top of, and, as much as possible, ahead of, the fast-paced, ever-changing world of mobile technology and the mobile web. It needed an executive who could guide the retailer through new and uncharted waters.

Today, most retailers in m-commerce assign mobile leadership and responsibilities to the director of e-commerce or similar title. Some split responsibility between e-commerce and I.T. or e-commerce and marketing.

But it’s going to be an imperative sooner rather than later that larger multichannel and web-only retailers that want to lead have an executive devoted to m-commerce, says Jim Okamura, senior partner at retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group Ltd.

“It’s a title we will start to see become more commonplace, with a strong connection up to the hierarchy, for the foreseeable future through the director of e-commerce,” Okamura says. “As a part of the overall direct and cross-channel alignment, it makes sense for mobile to have representation among executives, to direct an organization through this technology new to retail, to have a champion that can fight for internal resources.”

Emmons and company

Emmons leads a team of four and reports to the director of technology, Ravi Acharya. He also is charged with working with two mobile technology vendors: Usablenet Inc. and an offshore development firm.

“We have a collective responsibility as a group to keep the ball rolling to stay one step ahead of what customers want, offering value in this new channel and working with all the different organizations within Sears where mobile makes sense,” Emmons says. “A third of my time is spent doing strategy work, another third project execution, and the final third operations.”

Another reason Sears created the post of mobile team leader was because mobile efforts require time and energy-and the director of technology already had many other projects that required his attention.

“It boils down to focus: Mobile takes time and persistence,” Emmons says. “It took two years to get where we’re at today. A lot of that was chasing people down, talking with anyone who might work with us. Now the situation is flipped: We have lots of people interested in working with us. Focus is why we’re able to continue.”

In addition to focus, Sears understands that mobile is a highly specialized arena, and as a result, an m-commerce chief needs freedom.

“We’re given a lot of free rein on what the direction is for these projects, because you really need to be close to the technology to understand how things work and what the user experience should be like,” Emmons remarks. “If you don’t understand that at a low level, it will be difficult to make business decisions. So we’re much more of a bottom-up innovation area than a top-down.”

First stop: texting

Emmons’ strategy called for text messaging to be the first stop for mobile-specifically, texts tied to Sears’ popular order online/pickup in-store program. It’s very simple: A customer receives a text message alert the second an order is ready for pickup. Emmons says the opt-in program has become very popular among customers.

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