November 17, 2010, 10:39 AM

Mobile is moving on up

Is mobile becoming (gasp) a priority for some retailers?

It’s a question e-retailers have struggled with for more than a decade as they launched web sites, and now mobile merchants are finding they must confront it as well: Build or buy your mobile presence?

That dilemma rose to the top of my mind again this week while writing about two competitors in the travel space who had both announced mobile advancements on the same day—Priceline.com with its Android app, and Orbitz.com with an m-commerce site as well as iPhone and Android apps.

It’s our policy to ask each company whether they developed mobile apps or sites in-house or used an outside vendor.

What struck me with both companies’ responses was their stress on in-house mobile expertise.  For example, while Orbitz was honest that its mobile site and apps were developed using both in-house and outside expertise, it would not name the vendor and stressed it was soon bringing all mobile development in-house.

“Moving forward, we intend to manage the bulk of our mobile development in-house,” the Orbitz spokesman said. “We’re choosing not to name our outside partners at this time, especially since we intend to manage this internally from here out."

Priceline.com on the other hand not only told me it created its new app in-house but was sure to mention the app was created by Priceline’s “dedicated mobile development staff.”

That got me thinking. Could it be mobile is becoming too important to farm out? Is mobile becoming (gasp) a priority for some retailers—such a priority that merchants are fearful to outsource, afraid they’ll be left in a lurch down the line if they don’t cultivate their own in-house expertise?

Then, (I think it was a sign) the same day as I wrote the travel story, I received an e-mail from an executive at a major hotel chain. His title: director, mobile & emerging channels. I’m seeing more of this. 1-800-Flowers.com has Kevin Ranford, vice president of online marketing, mobile and social media. EBay’s got Steve Yankovich as vice president of mobile and platform business solutions. Amazon calls Sam Hall its director of Amazon Mobile.

Now, I realize I’m naming only the big guns here. Of course 1-800-Flowers is going to take mobile seriously when for the first quarter of its fiscal 2011 ended Sept. 26, m-commerce sales topped $1 million, a 9,900% increase over Q1 2010 sales. And eBay did $600 million in mobile sales last year and is on track for $1.5 billion this year. I also realize a small retailer with a slim staff may not have the resources, time or money to pay a mobile executive or create a soup-to-nuts, whiz-bang mobile presence. In fact, for small players that want try and compete with the behemoths, speedy time to market may be No. 1 on their mobile must-have list. They just want something out there.

Still, I can’t deny the hints. Mobile is getting a bigger emphasis within the big players. It seems as though the C-suite is finally listening—dedicating in-house resources tied directly to mobile. I believe eventually small players will begin to follow suit.

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