September 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Where mobile meets commerce

It’s at the Mobile Commerce Forum next month, where pioneering mobile retailers will share their insights.

Walgreen Co. has committed to m-commerce in a way few other retailers have, starting in May 2009 by appointing Tim McCauley to become one of the retail industry's first directors of m-commerce.

In summer 2009 Walgreens launched a full-fledged m-commerce site, enabling consumers to refill prescriptions, order photos for pickup in-store and find nearby Walgreens stores. In October, after noting the sizable number of mobile customers using Apple Inc. devices, it launched a mobile app for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Then, earlier this year, it launched mobile apps for BlackBerry and Android phones. And in the spring, it launched text message services.

"Our stores offer convenience when you're on the go," says McCauley, a featured speaker at Internet Retailer's Mobile Commerce Forum next month. "Mobile extended our online presence so that it's within arm's reach of our customers almost all day long."

And the company is just getting started, as it's made mobile one of its e-commerce division's seven strategic initiatives for its 2011 fiscal year, which starts this month.

Walgreens is among the rapidly swelling ranks of retailers making it easy for consumers to shop through their mobile phones. As these retailers get into mobile, they're seeking answers to questions about how to design and market mobile sites, how consumers respond to mobile marketing, and where mobile apps fit into the picture.

They'll find those answers at the first-ever Internet Retailer Mobile Commerce Forum, Oct. 12-13, at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago. The event features 29 speakers and 35 exhibiting vendors.

While the speakers list includes such major retailers as The Walgreen Co., and Finish Line, attendees also will hear from travel and ticketing companies that were among the first to recognize that consumers were not only willing to transact through mobile phones, they expected that option would be available.

"There's an expectation not just in the travel space but of consumers in general that the same content they can get on the PC should be accessible from a mobile phone, especially a smartphone," says Will Pinnell, director of mobile strategy at Sabre Holdings, which runs Travelocity, and the keynote speaker at the Mobile Commerce Forum. "Just a couple of years ago, retailers and brands looked at mobile as a way to differentiate and provide a competitive position in the market, but today mobile is much more like table stakes. It is critically important because it is meeting customer expectations."

What's changed that expectation has been the explosive sales of smartphones. By the end of next year, The Nielsen Co. says half of all mobile phone users will own sophisticated handsets like the iPhone, BlackBerry and smartphones using Android software. All those smartphones make it easy for consumers to access the mobile web.

Retailers have to keep up, asserts Carol Steinberg, senior vice president of e-commerce, marketing and business development at, which operates an m-commerce site and a mobile app.

"If you're not using a smartphone, you are behind the times and out of touch with the rest of the world," says Steinberg, who will also speak at the Mobile Commerce Forum. "User acceptance and adoption of the smartphone is the key factor driving m-commerce, especially in that the functionality of the devices and the features they offer makes them that much more compelling to use to surf the web and find things one is looking for."

The conference will also feature presentations from analysts representing research firms such as ABI Research and Acquity Group LLC, who will report on how consumers are using their mobile phones to shop in the wake of the recession.

"Both e-commerce and m-commerce play very well to deal-hungry shoppers," says Mark Beccue, senior analyst, consumer mobility, at ABI Research. "Plus, you have demographics lining up with these other factors for a perfect storm. There's a significant portion of the population that has grown up in the digital era, and they look to technology, and today especially mobile technology, and use it voraciously."

Sites and apps

That leads retailers to the question of how to provide mobile sites that these mobile-happy consumers can use. To create a successful m-commerce site, retailers and other companies need to understand how shoppers use their e-commerce sites, says Tom Nawara, vice president of digital strategy and design at Acquity Group LLC, a digital marketing firm that specializes in e-commerce and m-commerce strategy.

"It is not just about shrinking down your site and hoping it works on a mobile device, you have to take a look at the data around the primary areas of an e-commerce site people are accessing and boil it down to the top three to five actions," Nawara says. "It could be browsing key portions of a catalog, a quick-find feature to get to a product very fast, any number of things. Identify the key calls to action and bundle those up into mobile."

A major topic at the conference will be discussions of the different roles of mobile apps and mobile sites—and the degree to which the two are converging.

Apps are designed for a specific phone, such as an iPhone or handsets based on Android software, and thus marketers must be sure to target the phone their best customers use.

"You have to understand your market, even more so than with a mobile web site," Nawara says. "You can hit a broader base with a site because you have to worry less about target devices; with an app you have to do homework, you have to understand who is coming as well as do customer research to see who your target markets might be. It takes more up-front investigation and research than a site would because with a site you are more or less translating the e-commerce experience to m-commerce. With an app it is a completely different animal and you need to plan."

A retailer developing an app must understand the devices it is working with. Using the innate abilities of a smartphone is crucial to creating an app that will be used on a regular basis, says Steinberg of

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