June 23, 2009, 12:00 AM

Retailers have several strategies to choose from when going mobile

Merchants moving to mobile commerce can build an m-commerce site, create a mobile app, enable purchasing via text messages or use a combination of the three—or they could do nothing, say two m-commerce consultants.

There are three ways to sell to consumers via mobile phones: a mobile commerce web site, a downloadable mobile application (more commonly known as an app) and text messaging. The question for retailers getting into m-commerce is, What to do first?

Two experts who spoke last week at the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition M-commerce Workshop suggested that retailers have several strategies to choose from.

First, they said, is a simple one: Do nothing. If a retailer is only concerned with customers using smartphones that offer full-page web browsing, and thus can view conventional web sites, and it is not concerned with some navigation issues or offering the most optimal experience, it can hope customers are content with the standard e-commerce site, said Troy Gibson, director of technology at consulting and research firm Resource Interactive, in a session titled “Which M-commerce Strategy is Right for You?”

“Or you do your research and discover your consumers have not adapted to the mobile experience,” Gibson said. “But if customers want something like ratings and reviews on the go and you don’t have it, customers may go to a competitor’s mobile site to get that information.”

The second strategy is to build a mobile-optimized m-commerce web site. These sites display content and features in a way that fits the screen of customers’ various mobile devices, be they conventional flip-phones or the smartest of smartphones.

This strategy addresses the reality that mobile phones are increasingly ubiquitous. A retailer’s customers are no doubt using mobile phones, and a great many are built with the ability to access the Internet, said Vidya Drego, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

“Providing utility on a mobile-optimized site is important if your customers are using the mobile web a lot,” Drego said. “You can provide consumers with a lot of information at a lower cost than other channels, such as hiring an employee at a store or hiring another person at the call center.”

The third approach is to design and deploy a mobile app. Apps run on smartphones like the iPhone and the Palm Pre. They are wildly popular-earlier this year, for example, Apple announced its one billionth app download. Because apps can use the features and functions of the smartphone, such as GPS or the user’s address book, and the device’s computing power, they offer a richer experience than m-commerce sites. They don’t offer the wide reach of m-commerce sites, though, because apps are specific to certain brands of smartphones whereas anyone with mobile web access can access a mobile site.

“You can provide a greater level of experience and have a deeper relationship with your customer with apps,” Gibson said. “An app does have to have utility: If your goal is to provide overall value to consumers, the app has to provide more value than just browsing the catalog like with a mobile site. Use the camera, use the GPS, use the design capabilities, make it the Swiss Army Knife experience so customers can use your store out of their pockets. If you do create a good utility app, they’re looking at their phone all the time and they will interact with you more for the long term.”

The fourth approach is to provide customers the ability to make purchases via text messages, Gibson and Drego advised. Typically this involves sending a keyword to a shortcode, an abbreviated phone number, to launch a short back-and-forth between retailer and shopper that results in a sale.

“There is minimal cost, less than building an app, for example,” Drego said. “And you can tailor offers to specific customer segments using opt-in text lists.”

And fifth, retailers can take a combined approach. “If you want the greatest overall reach because there are limitations between the three, you get it by deploying various mobile offerings and you expose more functionality to the mobile consumer,” Gibson concluded. “You’re opening up communication across the board on a real-time basis.”

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