September 27, 2007, 12:00 AM

Less Is More

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Usablenet’s Jason Taylor suggests this sample scenario: Special limited-edition sneakers are set to go on sale Friday at 11 pm, but the retailer isn’t taking pre-orders because that would dilute the hype. Only losers are at their computers at that hour, so the retailer offers mobile users the option of signing up for a text reminder the moment the shoes are available to order. The text message links customers to the ordering page, which their phones can instantly populate with shipping and billing information. The customers submit their orders and are back at their respective parties by 11:05.

Embracing the m-lifestyle

Vibhav Prasad of 1-800-Flowers envisions a customer ordering roses to arrive in his wife’s hands by the time he gets home, and then receiving a text message confirming delivery. He’s also considering the possibility of offering “virtual gifts,” similar to those available in the Second Life virtual world, that could potentially become a fad among the 18- to-30-year-olds who represent the sweet spot for mobile marketing.

Nikki Baird, managing partner for Retail Systems Research, Miami, can envision a cross-platform function where shoppers enter their shopping list at home, then access it at the grocery store through their phone, perhaps automatically receiving coupons for certain purchases with barcodes that the cashier can scan right off the phone. Other kinds of linking could help make consumers turn regularly to mobile-enabled shopping. “Retailers could do a lot to save the sale by having product availability on their mobile service, so that people could enter a ZIP code and see if something was available nearby,” Baird says. “That alone would be of huge value to the consumer.”

Elizabeth Gardner is a Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business writer.

Where to start

There are several ways to get a mobile e-commerce site up and running, says Dave Sikora, CEO of 30 Second Software, the company behind the Digby shopping service for Blackberry users.

One option is for mobile web users to turn to a “transcoding engine” which automatically delivers a stripped down version of any URL they type in. Both Google and AOL transcode the sites delivered to cell phone users through their mobile search services. That leaves retailers at the mercy of the transcoding engines, which might make their site ugly at best and unreadable at worst. Merchants can do that transformation themselves and market the resulting “baby Internet site” to mobile users, Sikora says, but it may take intervention by a professional design team to produce something usable.

Another option is to do a complete lightweight redesign from scratch. “Your web site is dynamic, so you’ll need a whole new team,” not only to do the design but to keep it up to date, Sikora says. “In both cases (transcoding and redesigning), the user experience is not necessarily one that would encourage people to come back. Our experience shows that if you can’t deliver a good user experience, people won’t use it at all.”

One way to get mobile with a minimum of fuss-and the way that Sikora not surprisingly advocates-is to farm out the job. A mobile site developer can take a merchant’s logo, categories and product list (via the same type of data feed used for comparison shopping sites) and put together a site in anywhere from hours to weeks, depending on the vendor and the complexity of the site. Pricing and business models vary wildly depending on the target market and the specific offering. Here are just three:

MPoria, Seattle: For merchants wishing to experiment, mPoria will put up a basic storefront and offer products through its mobile mall for a set-up fee of $99 and a monthly fee of up to $150. Custom solutions are also available for larger retailers who want integration with their back-end systems. MPoria has more than 70 clients, including and GourmetStation.

Usablenet, New York: Provides mobile sites for Marriott, Delta Airlines, U.S. Airways and 1-800-Flowers, among others. Depending on size and complexity, costs range from $50,000 to $100,000 for design, implementation, and first year of management.

30 Second Software, Austin, Texas: Primary offering is the Digby service, which offers products from Godiva, Vermont Teddy Bear, and others, in an application that users download to their phones. Currently limited to Blackberries, though the company is contemplating expansion to other handsets. Operates on a revenue-sharing model. Will soon introduce a fee-based service to set up mobile storefronts.

Shopping the iPhone-a test drive

One hot iPhone selling point is that it allows users to browse normal web sites-no mobile accommodation required. If all phones were iPhones, would a retailer even need a separate m-commerce site? Nikki Baird, managing partner at Retail Systems Research, volunteered to shop for a rain jacket on her husband’s shiny new iPhone, just to see.

The iPhone uses AT&T;’s mobile data service, though it also has the ability to connect to a wi-fi network. Baird used wi-fi for half her shopping trip and the AT&T; service for the other half.

Overall, Baird describes her iPhone shopping trip as OK-not as fast as on a computer, but not as bad as she expected. “Browsing was painful and pictures were a little slow to load,” she says. “But the iPhone lets you open multiple browsing windows, so it’s a lot like using tabs.”

As many online shoppers do, she started at Google, searching for “women’s rain jacket.” One of the top results was, a comparison shopping site. Drawing from the Nextag results, she settled on a jacket from Ironically, the only page that didn’t display correctly was the one that contained the “Buy Now” button. It was missing, and Baird had to guess where it might have been and click that spot. Fortunately, she guessed right, and it took her to the ordering page. “Filling in my address and credit card info was a breeze,” she says. “It took far less time to buy it than it did to find it.” The whole expedition lasted about 25 minutes from the opening search to the order confirmation.

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