November 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Bye-bye PC, hello mobile

No longer just shrinking web sites, retailers focus on mobile design.

Lead Photo

In phase one of the mobile revolution, retailers pared down their e-commerce sites so consumers could easily navigate them and purchase on the smaller screens of smartphones. Now a second phase is underway in which retailers are offering features on mobile phones and tablets never seen on web sites designed for computers.

That second phase was much in evidence at last month's Internet Retailer Mobile Marketing & Commerce Forum in San Diego. Speakers described many features they're offering only on mobile devices. For example, eBay Inc. has tailored its RedLaser mobile app for retail chain Best Buy Co. so that when a shopper walks into a Best Buy store he sees specials just for that store, including deals on open-box items. Walgreen Co. lets customers scan prescription bottles with their phones to quickly orders refills. On Wine.com's iPad app, consumers can spin four wheels on the home page to find the wine they want, then see a map pop up showing where in the world the winery is located.

"It's very fun, very immersive, and very different from anything we ever did before," Cam Fortin, senior director of product development at Wine.com, told conference attendees.

That's the kind of mobile-first thinking Julie Ask, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., advocated in her presentation. "Get rid of the PC paradigm," Ask said. "You can't just shrink and squeeze your web sites for mobile, you've got do things differently. Mobile first means designing for mobile from the ground up."

What's more, discarding the PC mindset will be increasingly crucial as mobile technology evolves in the next few years, Ask said. She predicted smartphones will soon have two front-facing cameras, enabling them to estimate depth. That will allow her to point her phone at the refrigerator in her soon-to-be renovated kitchen—which she showed attendees in a photo—and get a listing of refrigerators that would fit that space, with her fridge's dimensions calculated by the phone. Keynote speaker Steve Yankovich, eBay's vice president of mobile, envisioned a day when he will be able to hold his phone up in a store and, through the technology known as augmented reality, see lit up just the products that fit him from brands he likes.

"There's no question that's what we're looking at, and it's not too far away," Yankovich said in his keynote speech.

Bring them back

Yankovich emphasized the fast pace of change in mobile commerce, and described eBay's approach as "get something out and learn." In the last three years, he said, eBay has invested in mobile commerce sites and apps for all the major smartphone platforms, as well as acquiring companies, like the maker of the RedLaser app that, in its standard configuration, lets shoppers scan bar codes with their phones to obtain price and other product information from web sites like eBay.com.

Yankovich anticipates the Best Buy version of RedLaser will one day let a shopper with the app on his phone page a Best Buy employee for help in a store, and will eventually integrate with Facebook so that the employee will see the shopper's picture and be able to recognize and greet him by name. Many more retail chains will be using customized versions of RedLaser, Yankovich said, although he did not name them.

EBay's mobile investments are paying off, Yankovich reported. He said eBay will sell $10 billion worth of merchandise worldwide through mobile devices, double last year's mobile sales. The online marketplace sells 9,000 cars a week through mobile—including at least one sports car that sold for more than $1 million, showing consumers' growing comfort with buying anything from their mobile devices, he said.

As evidence that shoppers like eBay's apps he pointed to their more than 100 million downloads. And eBay's mobile users are showing off their apps to friends, helping eBay attract nearly 1 million new customers via mobile in the past year, and reengage 1 million more that had stopped shopping on eBay. "It's a customer acquisition channel," he said.

And it's a channel where little changes make a difference, eBay has learned. For example, when it moved the Buy It Now button on its mobile site above the fold, the conversion rate jumped 30%. "We were just dumbfounded," Yankovich said.

He said eBay has also learned that mobile consumers engage with it in short bursts throughout the day, a behavior he called "snacking." Consumers will pull out their phones while walking from one meeting to another or while waiting for a traffic light to change, for example. With that in mind, eBay focuses on making it easy to complete a transaction, preferably with thumbs only. Posting an item for sale on eBay via a mobile device, for instance, takes 46 seconds and just a few taps and thumb swipes. "The question is," Yankovich said, "what can you do at a stoplight?"

Mobile-only

Stripping down to the essentials is crucial for mobile, agreed Sam Shank, CEO and co-founder of Hotel Tonight, an app that lets consumers quickly book hotel rooms for same-day stays, but only on iPhones and Android devices, not on the PC web.

How fast can travelers book? Eight seconds, Shank told the conference, just three taps and a swipe. And that includes a final page in which the consumer must trace the Hotel Tonight logo, a line drawing of a bed, to confirm the booking. He first suggested requiring the consumer to enter his initials to confirm, but his developers came up with the tracing idea that takes advantage of the phone's touchscreen and reinforces the company's logo.

Shank emphasized the importance of understanding what mobile consumers need. While taking out much of the information standard on hotel sites, the HotelTonight app instead tells travelers how late they can order room service and where they can park.

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