February 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

The giants of online retailing score big on the small screen

One of the traits that keeps market leaders Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc. ahead is their ability and their drive to evolve with e-commerce—and now, m-commerce, or e-retailing through mobile devices like cell phones and other personal digital assistants.

When it comes to setting the pace in online retailing, the two retailers in a league of their own are, of course, Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc., unquestionably the largest e-retailer and the largest single e-marketplace, respectively. One of the traits that keeps these companies ahead is their ability and their drive to evolve with e-commerce-and now, m-commerce, or e-retailing through mobile devices like cell phones and other personal digital assistants.

While m-commerce has taken off in other parts of the world, including Japan and parts of Europe, it has been slow to develop in the U.S., where few web sites have adapted to it-Amazon and eBay two notable exceptions.

Only 8% of the top 1,000 U.S. brands have web sites compatible with mobile web browsers, and retail industry brands do not fare even that well: they have a mobile web site adoption rate of a mere 1%, say results of the Top 1,000 Brands’ Mobile Web Presence Survey by RarePlay, a laptop, mobile phone, PDA and Internet consulting and technology company.

“An 8% mobile web adoption rate is small when you consider 42% of Alexa’s top 100 web sites have mobile web versions,” says Bob Rattivarakorn, RarePlay research analyst. “Recent surveys suggest roughly 20% of the U.S. online population over the age of 15 accesses the Internet over their mobile phones. So close to 30 million potential mobile site visitors are being overlooked.”

One area that shines in retail, though, is electronics and home appliances. 16% of brands in this category have mobile versions of their web sites.

Keep it simple

Retailers considering m-commerce and searching for examples, meanwhile, might take a look at the mobile interfaces of Amazon and eBay, which have provided simplified, dedicated interfaces for shoppers on mobile devices, according to technology consultants Molecular Inc.

The sites’ interfaces for mobile device users are “mobilized” rather than simply miniaturized, a key difference, and one that few _marketers fully understand, according to Molecular’s IPG Retail Group. The goal in adapting a web site for access by mobile device users is to present them with a subset of the web site’s functionality, but not to mirror the functionality of the full web sites.

While the web’s ability to drive sales in other channels by serving as a research source is _increasingly recognized, in-depth product research would be difficult to conduct using the small screen of a mobile device. “The mobile web is far better suited to enable a transaction any time, anywhere,” Molecular reports. “Users of eBay away from their computers, for example, can keep their bid alive during the closing minutes of an auction or check the status of watched items through eBay’s mobile-user interface.”

Amazon’s mobile site allows mobile users to search for products and add them to a shopping cart, which can then be pulled up via the regular Amazon site. Purchases also can be made via Amazon’s one-click feature. “The critical point is that Amazon does not ask customers to enter a lot of information on the mobile site,” Molecular says. “So this saves user aggravation while still allowing them to complete a purchase, at best, or load their shopping cart with products for future purchase at worst.”

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