June 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Up the mobile ladder

Mobile commerce chiefs plot a course through a rapidly changing landscape.

Lead Photo

Mobile commerce is evolving fast. It started with m-commerce web sites and text messaging, then quickly grew into smartphone apps. Two-dimensional QR codes sprouted. Then along came tablet computers. Today retailers are experimenting with visual search, live streaming video and augmented reality. Google has even built eyeglasses that display data like a smartphone does. There's no telling what's next.

This is why some retailers and other organizations believe there is a need to dedicate an executive to mobile commerce—a quick-thinking leader who can keep a company on top of the m-commerce evolution and ensure mobile is part of every department's thinking and goals.

"Good mobile champions are all-around thought leaders and business leaders who are able to move seamlessly between merchandising, marketing, content, creative and technology," says Joe Reilly, senior vice president of digital platforms at TV, web and mobile retailer HSN. Reilly oversees the work of HSN m-commerce chief Ed Deutscher. "They are data-driven and customer-focused, and they have the ability to learn quickly and adapt new insights. They also have an innate ability to deconstruct top-level objectives into strategies and tactics and a willingness to take risks and learn along the way."

Managing mobile

Very few companies listed in the Internet Retailer Mobile Commerce Top 300, a ranking of consumer-oriented companies by mobile sales, have an executive with mobile in his or her title. But with mobile commerce growing—Internet Retailer estimates mobile sales will increase 64% this year to $17.5 billion from $10.7 billion in 2011—some experts are convinced it's time for that to change.

"Clearly, having an executive tasked with ensuring that the mobile component is a seamless part of the overall customer experience is important," says Steve Rowen, managing partner at Retail Systems Research LLC.

That executive's main job, Rowen says, is to make sure a brand's presentation in the mobile channel is consistent with how consumers see it in other settings, whether that's in a store, on a web site, in e-mail or through other channels.

A look at three m-commerce chiefs at three very different retail organizations shows they have a lot in common in terms of their responsibilities, challenges and how they approach the job.

Deutscher is operating vice president of emerging platforms, mobile and connected home at HSN Inc. Brandon McGee is director, global mobile, at consumer brand manufacturer and web and mobile retailer Dell Inc. And Steve Ashley is vice president of mobile and social products and Internet marketing at online marketplace and web and mobile retailer Market America Inc./Shop.com. The organizations named these three executives to head mobile because mobile traffic and sales had increased to a level where they believed mobile had come into its own as a channel. The three executives' assignments are fundamentally the same: Navigate their companies through the growing and evolving m-commerce realm.

The three mobile chiefs say their most important job responsibilities are crafting and managing an m-commerce strategy that syncs with their company's overarching goals, and guiding the organization's deployment of mobile technologies.

After being hired in May 2010, McGee immediately went to work developing a business case to get the funds he believed necessary to develop and execute a mobile strategy focused on how consumers were interacting with Dell.

Two years later, Dell is No. 49 in the Internet Retailer Mobile Commerce Top 300 with 2011 mobile sales of $13.4 million, according to Internet Retailer estimates. The retailer has an m-commerce web site, smartphone apps for multiple countries, bar code scanning technology built into its apps, and smartphone and iPad apps for its resellers. McGee declines to reveal Dell's mobile commerce budget but says that the company "has a meaningful investment in mobile technology and it's something we take very seriously."

Assessing the market

When Market America/Shop.com decided to go mobile in late 2009, Ashley assessed the mobile commerce market to flesh out his plan. He wanted to see what other retailers were doing that worked and didn't work, and what technologies fit Market America's needs. He quickly hired Silvy Mathews to be director of engineering, mobile. Mathews came with a solid pedigree—he worked on Amazon.com Inc.'s mobile apps from 2007 to 2009. Ashley and Mathews decided to pursue an aggressive mobile strategy that included an app, as well as an m-commerce site.

"We wanted to come out of the gate with guns loaded and have an app for Apple's iOS and a mobile-enabled site," Ashley says. "With the app, there are so many things you can do that you can't do on a mobile site, such as bar code scanning and coupon notifications. With the site, we had to make sure we were hitting the biggest market; I didn't want to leave out users of other smartphones."

While Ashley's responsibilities include web marketing, social and mobile, he says mobile takes up about 70% of his time because of how fast the market and his company's investment in m-commerce are growing. He declines to reveal his budget but reports that sales of Market America-branded products through the Market America m-commerce site and mobile app hit $700,000 in 2011, a 320% year-over-year increase. Mobile traffic was up 208% in 2011 compared with 2010. The retailer plans to launch in September a new app for retailers that sell through Market America, and Ashley predicts it will generate $5 million to $10 million in mobile sales within the first nine months.

The mobile team

Each of the m-commerce chiefs leads a multidisciplinary team.

At Dell, McGee has a team of 12 dedicated program managers; each works with a business unit or a region to define requirements and uses. They also work with I.T. staff and vendors where appropriate to develop new products while also coordinating the marketing and advertising, public relations, and social media aspects of launch campaigns.

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