September 30, 2011, 1:58 PM

Sponsored Supplement: Mobile warming

Why m-commerce is the hottest trend in retailing.

Lead Photo

Shopping and researching products via mobile phone is becoming part of everyday life for millions of consumers. Retailers up on the intricacies of mobile commerce can reap big rewards. The mobile phone has become an indispensible device for aiding consumers in their daily shopping activities. Consumers increasingly use their phones to find bargains, compare prices, check available inventory at a local store, and to receive promotional alerts or electronic coupons that can be scanned in-store directly from their phones.

In a recent survey conducted by Deloitte LLC, 43% of consumers with web-enabled smartphones said they've used their phones while in a store for such shopping-related tasks as reading product reviews and searching for promotions. Further, 72% of mobile phone users surveyed earlier this year by PriceGrabber, a division of database marketing giant Experian, said they are receiving coupons, product deals and price alerts via their mobile phones.

With more than half of mobile phones in use in the U.S. by the end of 2011 expected to be smartphones, according to research firm The Nielsen Co., the statistics on mobile use add up to one indisputable conclusion for retailers: They can no longer afford to lag behind in marketing and selling to mobile shoppers.

"The mobile channel is an adjunct to other consumer shopping channels. There are times when a shopper needs to get information to aid them when shopping and the only outlet to perform that task is their phone," says Eric Feinberg, director of mobile strategy for ForeSee, a customer experience analytics company that works exclusively with retailers. "Given the projected growth of mobile phones, retailers that are in the channel need to step up their creativity and those that aren't in it need to get into it now."

Mobile is different

For many retailers, the first step has been to pare down their web sites to make them easy to use on the small screen of a mobile phone. That may have put them ahead of competitors two years ago, but today that approach will impress few shoppers. Instead, retailers need to understand the special needs of mobile shoppers and address them effectively.

For example, mobile shoppers like to be able to find key product information, such as price and availability, without having to scroll down a page. They appreciate large navigation tabs that are easy to touch. It's not uncommon for mobile shoppers with large fingers to become frustrated with small navigation tabs that are hard to press without inadvertently pressing a different tab.

"Mobile shoppers don't need the same online experience they get when using a desktop, that's why it's important to understand their needs and expectations," says Andrew Opdyke, director of mobile development for web site design firm "Mobile shoppers are consumers on the go and they like small, key bits of information and user-friendly navigation tabs. They don't want to be overwhelmed with options."

Sites vs. apps

While less is more in the mobile channel, consumers still want a rich, exciting shopping experience. There are two paths retailers can follow to satisfy mobile shoppers: build a mobile web site or one or more mobile apps.

Apps are faster because they are written in code native to the device, versus having to use a mobile browser to interpret the HTML and JavaScript programming languages. Apps also can make use of features built into the handset, such as the phone being able to report its location, to show a shopper a deal at a nearby store. They can also take advantage of other native phone functionality such as contacts, calendar, photos, etc. In short, apps are cool.

But there are downsides to apps. An iPhone app only works on an iPhone, and an Android app only on an Android device, and so on. That means building one app allows a retailer only to reach a fraction of mobile shoppers. Some leading mobile retailers have built apps for all the major devices, but that requires development dollars and time, as well as maintenance and upgrades for the code on multiple platforms. In the case of apps for the iPhone and iPad, getting an app approved for inclusion in Apple Inc.'s App Store means meeting Apple's stringent technical requirements. And whenever there are advances in the handset, the app must be updated.

For all these reasons, some experts advise retailers getting started in mobile to start with a mobile commerce site. The biggest argument for mobile sites is that a single site can be accessed from any web-enabled smartphone. And, since the site is accessed through a mobile browser, a change in the technology in the phone does not require changes to the mobile site. What's more, advances in mobile web browsers are making it possible for retailers to build mobile sites that rival the speed and the shopping experience of mobile apps.

A well-designed mobile commerce site can detect the mobile device, operating system and web browser that the consumer is using to access the site and then format the site's content to the device.

"If a retailer only has the resources to do one or the other, a mobile site is the recommended starting point because it is getting easier to create rich touch screen user experiences with the browser that is as a good as an app and that scales elegantly to multiple devices, but at less cost than an app," says Michael Piastro, user experience director for e-commerce design and engineering firm Alexander Interactive (Ai).

The app edge

Despite being more expensive to build and maintain than a mobile web site, however, apps can be an important adjunct to a retailer's mobile program that can deliver quickly information and services that can be very appealing to consumers. An athletic shoe retailer, for example, might want to create an app that helps consumers locate the nearest gym or basketball court, which is an especially attractive feature for frequent travelers that like to work out.

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