March 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Over and Above

M-commerce platforms must offer mobile shoppers the best of e-commerceÑand maybe a bit more.

There are two things a mobile commerce platform has to get right, retailers and m-commerce technology experts say: The first is making mobile shopping feel familiar to a consumer used to shopping a retailer's web site and the second is allowing for fine-tuning to meet the unique needs of the on-the-go consumer.

University of Texas apparel and accessories retailer University Co-op, for example, decided when shopping for a mobile commerce platform that one of the must-haves was a guided navigation set-up that mirrored the one it had on its e-commerce site but could be tweaked for use on smartphones. The technology provider it selected, Digby, offered just that.

It's critical that an m-commerce vendor provide a navigation system as part of its platform that is simple and efficient, says Brian Jewell, vice president of marketing at University Co-op.

The UniversityCoop.com m-commerce site home page features nine categories where shoppers can begin a quick process of drilling down to a product. This is fewer categories than on the e-commerce site, though. And to sharpen the focus for mobile consumers looking for speed, the categories and their sub-categories are in part based on the 10% of products that account for 90% of sales, Jewell explains, removing categories and products that would only get in the way of most shoppers.

University Co-op delineated the mobile commerce categories for Digby and gave the vendor the data feed for those categories and their products. Digby then used its platform to craft the site based on these specifications.

In the end, Jewell achieved his goal of getting shoppers from the home page to a desired product page in just a few touches of the smartphone screen. "Ultimately, less is more, simple is more, less frustrating is more, quickness is more," he says.

This is the kind of feature and flexibility an m-commerce platform needs to offer. Shoppers used to a retailer's e-commerce site but now visiting the merchant's mobile site or app expect familiar surroundings. And they expect to be able to do many of the same things. At the same time, they're typically not there to browse—they want to find something fairly specific and get in and out fast. So a platform must enable speed.

The next step
When it comes to m-commerce platforms, few retailers build them in-house. Most buy a platform hosted via the web by an m-commerce technology provider or use an m-commerce add-on from their e-commerce vendor. One way or the other, an m-commerce platform must be able to integrate with an e-commerce platform, which manages most of the back-end requirements of selling via both the mobile web and PC web. And an m-commerce platform must play nice with e-commerce systems from other vendors, systems such as site search and customer reviews.

But then there's the next step beyond. While most retailers in m-commerce are busy polishing off a mobile experience that reflects e-commerce, some retailers are making strides in fine-tuning the mobile experience to meet the quickened pace of mobile shopping. They're including technology like type-ahead, which suggests search keywords and phrases based on only a few letters, and voice recognition, which totally removes the need for typing. These advances could point to what more e-commerce and m-commerce vendors will have to offer in their platforms in the future.

Today, m-commerce platforms typically link to e-commerce platforms to let the e-commerce platforms do all the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting of online shopping. Mobile shopping carts, for instance, connect to web shopping carts, or can be mobile-optimized versions of the actual e-commerce shopping cart. This way, a retailer doesn't have to recreate the complex workings of checkout and payment.

At University Co-op, the Digby mobile shopping cart is its own page, but is linked to the e-commerce shopping cart on the back end. This way, orders are placed and managed in a consistent fashion, customers can access encrypted stored addresses and payment information, and the mobile site automatically becomes PCI-compliant because it is using the same system as the already compliant e-commerce shopping cart. PCI, which stands for Payment Card Industry, is a collection of data security standards created by payment networks like Visa and MasterCard that merchants must comply with to ensure cardholder information is protected.

So Digby, which charged an implementation fee and takes a cut of monthly sales, and University Co-op's e-commerce platform provider Sequoia Retail Systems Inc. work together in the mobile setting to complete transactions. "Checking out and placing the order pulls the best parts of the e-commerce checkout to a mobile-optimized page," Jewell says.

Just like e-commerce
Outdoors apparel and gear merchant Patagonia uses a similar set-up in its mobile app through its m-commerce technology provider Sprella LLC. It paid Sprella an implementation fee and pays a monthly fee, which it declines to reveal.

Once a customer touches Checkout, Patagonia's mobile app creates a mobile-optimized page based on its e-commerce site checkout page. Mobile orders are handled by the same shopping cart and order management system used in e-commerce. The mobile experience reflects the e-commerce experience but doesn't precisely duplicate it, which is important, says Ben Stefanski, director of online sales at Patagonia.

"We don't want you to have a great shopping experience all the way to checkout," he says, "and then have to do checkout on our e-commerce site, pinching and zooming along the smartphone screen."

At Jewelry Television, which is projecting $1 million a month in mobile sales this year, mobile order management in its m-commerce site is handled by the retailer's e-commerce platform from Demandware. Demandware also created the mobile site, while JTV's app was developed in-house.

"Mobile orders are no different than web orders or call center orders," says Tim Engle, senior vice president of strategic development. "Everything feeds our Demandware platform."

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