August 31, 2011, 9:28 AM

A timely gathering

The second annual Mobile Commerce Forum arrives as retailers grapple with the power and rapid evolution of mobile

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If Internet time became a metaphor for rapid change, mobile time may prove to set even a faster pace. So much has changed since the dawn of the mobile Internet era as a mass consumer phenomenon, which dates only to Apple Inc.'s introduction of the iPhone in January 2007.

"The iPhone was the watershed moment for mobile," says Jill Braff, executive vice president of digital commerce at TV and web retailer HSN Inc. "It was the beginning of the understanding for consumers to see how mobile fit in their life."

It has not taken consumers long to grasp that the iPhone and the competing smartphones it spawned could enhance their lives. By the end of June of this year, 78.5 million U.S. residents owned smartphones, up 54% from 51.1 million a year earlier, comScore Inc. says. And they're learning quickly that those slick, web-enabled handsets can be effective shopping tools. 27% of smartphone owners surveyed this summer by comparison shopping engine PriceGrabber planned to use their phones while shopping to compare prices on back-to-school supplies, compared with 17% a year earlier; and 10% planned to purchase with their phones, up from 7% in 2010.

The rapid consumer uptake means retailers must act now, even before they can be sure what will work. That's HSN's approach, says Braff, who will deliver the keynote address at the second annual Mobile Commerce Forum, which will take place in Houston Oct. 10-12.

"With mobile, the roads are not yet all blazed," Braff says. "So we use a combination of intuition and customer data to help us define our next steps, and at the same time try not to let the unknowns lead us into paralysis."

Like Braff, speakers at the Mobile Commerce Forum will represent retailers and other companies that have avoided being paralyzed by the uncertainty and rapid pace of change in mobile commerce. Rather, the 48 speakers include retailers into their second or third generation of mobile sites and apps, and mobile experts who have advised and assisted them.

Several retailer speakers will discuss the growing evidence that their most loyal and profitable customers gravitate to mobile apps that provide slicker features and faster responses than mobile sites. Others will talk about the latest device to demand the attention of mobile marketers, Apple's iPad and the tablet computers that competitors introduced in its wake. Speakers will address the special design demands of mobile devices, mobile site and app performance, and how the proliferation of smartphones is transforming store-based retailing.

The urgency to keep pace with consumers' rapid adoption of mobile shopping is expected to double attendance at this year's Mobile Commerce Forum from the 625 who participated at the inaugural event last year in Chicago, predicts Jack Love, CEO of Vertical Web Media LLC, which organizes Mobile Commerce Forum and publishes Internet Retailer magazine. Fifty companies will exhibit, introducing their technology and services to attendees.

Apps and iPad

One of the big developments since last year's conference is the growing realization among retailers that they must offer apps to make mobile shopping as appealing as possible. That's because these small applications can continually download data from the retailer's web site, which means the data—such as product information, availability and offers—are all available to the mobile shopper instantly.

"For power users, the mobile app is becoming the tool of choice," says Barry Litwin, vice president of global e-commerce at retail chain Office Depot Inc. who will speak at the conference in a session entitled "Creating the Mobile Apps Consumers Want to Use." He'll describe the warm reception his best customers have given to Office Depot's iPhone app, introduced in March, that lets customers sync up their mobile shopping lists with lists they create on their computers, and to scan items in stores and purchase them for delivery to their homes or offices.

Speaking with Litwin will be Tim Katz, senior online manager at retail chain Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., whose app includes an Outfit Builder that lets shoppers mix and match tops, bottoms, bags and sunglasses. And while the app can collect data in the background, PacSun chooses to alert customers to its updates, popping up a window that says, "New products available. Update now or later?"

Another explosive development of the past year is the emergence of the tablet computer, a category that Apple Inc. effectively created just over a year and a half ago with the January 2010 introduction of the iPad. Already, 9% of U.S. online shoppers have tablets and by 2015 a third of U.S. adults will own the portable, touchscreen devices, says Forrester Research Inc.

With an iPad app from Catalogs.com, consumers can flip through a digital catalog and use their fingers to zoom in for details and tap to buy an item or add it to a wish list. If a consumer puts an item into her shopping cart on the app, then goes to the retailer's site, she'll find the item waiting in the web site's cart, explains Richard Linevsky, president of Catalogs.com, who will speak at the conference in a session entitled "How iPads Create New Opportunities in Digital Catalogs."

A better app

Among the retailers moving beyond first-generation mobile projects is Sierra Trading Post, a direct marketer of outdoor gear and apparel, that, frankly, didn't hit it big with its initial iPhone and iPad apps, admits web marketing manager Justin Johnson.

But it's reworking its apps, based on what it's learned from its successful mobile commerce site.

"We are taking what we learned and applying it to native app development right now," says Johnson, who will go into more detail in a conference session entitled, "If you build the app, you have to do something to make them come."

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