March 15, 2011, 3:24 PM

The iPad is unique. Use it accordingly.

Apple was creative when it made the iPad. Retailers should think creatively when using it.

The iPad is like the red-headed stepchild of mobile commerce. Except in a world where red heads are super cool and all the rage.  It’s not quite a smartphone and it’s not quite a laptop. It’s mobile, but it won’t fit in your back pocket. Its screen is larger than a phone, but smaller than a computer. It’s just, well, different.

But different can be good. Very good. Apple thought creatively when it made the iPad. Now retailers should think creatively when using it. A few companies are getting this right. Many aren’t. Many simply launch iPhone apps figuring they will load on an iPad too and wash their hands of Apple’s mobile products. (Some even try to trick us by calling their iPhone app an iPad app even when it’s not optimized for Apple’s tablet—blasphemy!)

Well, there are a few problems with that approach. First off an iPhone app, as expected, is designed for the screen size of the iPhone. You can tap an iPad to “blow” an iPhone app up, but you lose picture clarity. And secondly when you do this, you’re missing out on a boatload of downright cool stuff an iPad app can do.

Take Polo Ralph Lauren’s iPad app for its RLX athletic apparel brand.  The app features athletes in flight, demonstrating the form, style and functionality of the apparel. The tablet technology enables shoppers to interact with the athletes’ images on screen by tilting, rotating, flipping and tapping the iPad to manipulate different movements, colors and environments. The app takes full advantage of the tricked-out tablet’s built-in accelerometer (technology that senses in what position an iPad is being held, and if it is being shaken), digital compass, GPS, and multi-touch screen capabilities.

In one case, a woman in a green dress appears standing in a pirouette-like position. By blowing into the iPad microphone as prompted by the app, a consumer can get the woman to spin in slow motion to show off the dress from every angle, all accompanied by opera music.

But the commerce-enabled iPad app is just part of the retail equation when it comes to the Apple tablet. Other creative retailers and brands are putting iPads in the hands of customers to speed checkout, offer information and entertain.

Celebrity Cruises recently unveiled iPad-based art tours on board its vessels. IPads on ships offer a map with select pieces of art highlighted. Passengers can tap the iPad screen to access details about the chosen piece, such as a description of the artist, the time period in which the art was created and more.

Retailers City Sports and Things Remembered are turning off-the-shelf iPads into kiosks. The iPads are mounted to kiosk-like stands throughout the stores. The bottom button on the iPad, which takes users to the iPad home screen, is covered so shoppers can only use the app running on the screen, called iPad Kiosk. The app, linked to a retailer’s information systems via Wi-Fi, can be customized to present any information a retailer selects.

City Sports’ new concept store in Washington, D.C., is using the tablet computer to route customers to the City Sports web site and to serve up product videos, news, and content based on location such as information on running clubs and events. Things Remembered, which specializes in personalized gifts, is using the iPad Kiosk app in select stores to streamline a previously paper-based, in-store ordering process for ordering personalized products.

If the iPad didn’t offer much you couldn’t already get with an iPhone, I’d wager that that Apple wouldn’t have sold 15 million of them between April and December 2010 and an estimated 500,000 units of its iPad 2 the first weekend after its launch.

So give the mobile stepchild a little love. Tousle its hair a bit and foster its talents. Help it achieve its full potential and in return it just might help you achieve higher sales.

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