February 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

E-commerce on the move

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Marketers are already responding to this massive, if largely untapped, base of Internet phone users. 40% of U.S. companies with annual revenue of $50 million or more offer mobile web sites, and an additional 22% plan to do so in the next 12 months, according to “Mobile Web Sites: Designing for Mobility,” a new report from JupiterResearch.

The number of mobile web sites-which today focus on consumer experience first and monetization second-is growing because mobile phones are becoming more powerful, mobile web browsers are better than ever, and wireless networks are transmitting data much faster, says Julie Ask, vice president and research director at JupiterResearch and lead author of the report.

“As mobile phones and the mobile web experience improve, more consumers are using the mobile web,” Ask says. “Now consumer expectations go up: They have some good experiences with mobile sites and soon they are expecting standard web sites of other companies to offer a mobile experience.”

Thinking small

Technical construction of a mobile-optimized site is essentially the same as that for standard web sites only with different languages and applications. These include XHTML Basic, wireless application protocol (commonly known as WAP), Windows Mobile .Net, Java Micro Edition, Apple software development toolkit, Google Android, Brew and others. Retailers can create mobile sites in house or turn to a vendor such as mPoria Inc. or Usablenet Inc. that specializes in mobile site building.

Mobile sites can be freestanding with their own URLs, which typically include “mobile” or “WAP” or “m” or use a mobile-oriented domain such as .mobi. Or they can be launched automatically from the URL of the standard web site, which auto-detects through code sent by mobile phones and mobile browsers that a request is coming from a handheld device and redirects that request from the standard site to the mobile site.

The challenge in creating a mobile site, most experts say, is learning how to think small: deciding what content, features and functions to include and exclude, and how to display what is included.

“The mobile web is not the web. Understanding this is key,” Digby’s Slezak says. “The decade of experience we have cultivated on how to sell on the web cannot be ported straight to the mobile world. Retailers need to think through their mobile strategy from the ground up.”

While Amazon.com offers much of the same product information-basic information, product imagery, customer reviews and more-on its mobile site, it whittled away some features and functions but included a system to speed the purchasing process.

“How do I create a great customer experience while avoiding putting the entire web site experience on a small screen? The last thing you want to do is put something out there that is frustrating because people will give up and drop off,” Amazon.com’s Hall says.

One example of a feature dropped for the mobile site is streaming audio clips featured on CD product pages on the standard site. “We don’t believe the average customer on the mobile web wants this, and we would not be able to put a good customer experience behind it,” Hall explains.

An example of a standard site function the e-retailer believed was absolutely crucial to the mobile site is 1-click buying. “If a customer does not have a Qwerty keyboard, entering information on a nine-key phone becomes rather tedious,” Hall says. “It is really important to have 1-click buying because it eliminates text-heavy input.”

Significantly streamlined

When another e-retailer wrapped its hands around small, it decided to strip down its standard web site to create a mobile experience that gets right to the heart of the matter. Netflix Inc. launched its mobile site-Netflix.com/mobile, built in house in a few weeks by a couple of engineers as a pet project-in summer 2006. It concluded subscribers on the go generally would be looking to search for a movie, read a bit about it and add it to their queue, or review what’s already in their queue.

“The key was keeping it wonderfully simple,” says Gibson Biddle, vice president of product management at Netflix. “Our regular site has a more personalized experience with recommendations and such based on your member history. We chose not to do all these things on our mobile site. Basically, when you are out with friends and family and someone suggests a title to you, you can Netflix it.”

To simplify the mobile experience, the Netflix site asks for a user’s name and password only once, storing that information in a mobile cookie so the subscriber never has to enter the information again. And the merchant dropped its recommendations, search by genre, community offerings, and other features and functions to speed download times and sharpen the focus on searching for films and adding them to a queue. It even dropped movies’ average ratings, which only appear as a small cluster of highlighted stars on the standard site.

“Dropping that made the data transfer faster and made each screen of information as light and clear as possible,” Biddle says. “Given the small screen real estate of standard phones, we were very careful not to bring all the features from the site. The No. 1 error in mobile site design is doing too much.”

A blooming site

1-800-Flowers.com was on the same wavelength as Netflix when it launched its mobile site last April. Accessed at the same URL as the standard site, which auto-detects mobile devices and redirects to the mobile version, the retailer’s mobile site is designed to get customers in and out as quickly as possible. The first of seven options on the home page, for example, is one of the most common purchases: Order 1 dozen Red Roses. And emphasis is placed on the same-day-delivery offerings for shoppers on the go who suddenly realize they have forgotten, say, a wedding anniversary.

“We have seen a lot of interest and adoption from customers. And we have seen a big increase in the number of orders,” says Vibhav Prasad, senior director of web site marketing. “Mobile is a consistently growing channel for us.”

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