October 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Phoning It In

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A mobile application, for example, can enable most of a shopping experience locally on the device without having to bounce back and forth between a web site, thus creating a speedier experience. It can do this by updating information when the device is idle, such as overnight when a user is sleeping.

Application developers use the typically free toolkits of a smartphone vendor’s proprietary, also called “closed,” platform to create the programs. However, new on the scene is Google’s Android mobile platform, which, unlike all other smartphone platforms, is an open platform that any hardware manufacturer can use. Thus mobile applications developed for Android do not have to be altered for any phones, regardless of manufacturer or model, using Android.

Mobile consumers typically download applications by registering on an e-commerce or m-commerce site and receiving a text message with a hyperlink that will download the program. Or they download directly from their device through a mobile application center, such as the new Apple App Store. Most mobile applications today are free.

1-800-Flowers.com designed its free iPhone application and a sister app for BlackBerry users, launched in August, based on what it has learned from its m-commerce and e-commerce sites.

“We learned from the mobile site that shoppers want quick and easy navigation. We had tried expanding our product offerings and found all that was really doing was slowing things down for shoppers who want last-minute gifts when on the move,” says Kevin Ranford, director of web marketing at 1-800-Flowers.com. “The e-commerce site showed us which categories and products received the most traffic and sales, and that helped us narrow mobile offerings to eight categories and 10% to 15% of our more than 600 products.”

For the BlackBerry and iPhone applications, 1-800-Flowers.com trimmed as much as possible from pages to ensure the shopping experience was as quick as possible. For example, it removed the price and some product information from some pages after the initial product page to speed page download times. Additionally, it integrated the mobile application with the BlackBerry and iPhone address books to speed entry of shipping information; shoppers also can use their 1-800-Flowers.com address books. Default billing and payment information is encrypted and stored in the application.

“We’re seeing mobile-savvy shoppers getting though an entire order in 30 seconds. And we’re seeing a fantastic repeat order rate,” Ranford says. “Once mobile shoppers try us out and see how quick it is, we’ve got them.”

A leg up

While the optimized sites and downloadable applications designed for other smartphones can be just as speedy and efficient, sites and apps for the iPhone and its direct competitors do have a leg up in some areas.

The iPhone and its direct competitors, for instance, enable a more thorough multi-channel shopping experience than most other smartphones. Shoppers with any smartphone with wireless data access can compare prices while in bricks-and-mortar stores by accessing m-commerce sites such as PriceGrabber.com, Barcle.com or Amazon.com. Shoppers with iPhones get more because of the richer experience the devices offer.

“Retailers can optimize sites for iPhones with very rich customer reviews functionality,” says Martin of the Yankee Group. “Being able to read customer reviews in a store in a quick and unfettered way can help eliminate decision-making apprehension. If you can provide much of the information available on an e-commerce site at the point of sale, that is a tremendous opportunity.”

While there is plenty of opportunity with the iPhone, there also are some hurdles. One, for example, concerns how the iPhone operating system functions: It only allows one application to run at a time.

“You can’t run background processes on the iPhone, unlike Windows Mobile or BlackBerry which run classical operating environments,” says Steve Slezak, marketing director at mobile shopping mall and application builder Digby. “We have a location-watcher sitting in the background that is tied to our merchandising server for our BlackBerry application. If a customer who has opted in to our service is driving or walking within a 5-mile radius of a retailer in our mobile mall, I can push a coupon out to the user. You can’t do that on an iPhone.”

Keyboard conundrum

Another hurdle is iPhone’s touchscreen keyboard, which appears on the screen when the user touches a keyboard command. Every computer user is accustomed to entering information into a computer or mobile device using a hard keyboard, be it a QWERTY keyboard or a triple-tap numerical keypad found on most conventional phones. Many consumers, especially those who use smartphones with hard QWERTY keyboards, are very hesitant to trade in what is familiar and efficient for something that is foreign and potentially more difficult to use, experts say.

“People are very used to having hard keyboards and seem to have a difficult time with the touchscreen keyboard. It’s one thing to place your finger on an item on a web page to zoom in; it’s another to type in a lot of information,” Slezak says. “Touchscreen is unnatural for people today. For merchants this is important because e-commerce is a typing-sensitive process.”

What’s more, the new T-Mobile G1 smartphone, with features and functions that mirror those of the iPhone, includes a touchscreen and a hard QWERTY keyboard (which slides out from the middle of the device, thus allowing for virtually the same screen size as the iPhone). So consumers looking for an advanced smartphone that enables full-page web browsing that isn’t limited to touchscreen data entry now have an alternative to the iPhone.

But to accommodate iPhone users, and move in the direction of 1-click buying on mobile devices to reduce almost all data entry for users of any mobile device, some retailers in m-commerce are trying to work around a keyboard all together. Digby has made as many steps as is possible in its ordering process require only one touch. To enter shipping information, for example, a couple of one-touch steps acquires data from the iPhone’s address book application database and inserts it into the appropriate order form fields.

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