Mobile take-off

Innovative travel firms can teach retailers a thing or two about easing and enriching m-commerce.

Bill Siwicki

Retailers can learn a lot from Travelocity when it comes to one of the pivotal aspects of mobile commerce: fast, easy checkout.

The online travel firm in September launched an iPhone app called Hotel Deals by lastminute.com. A consumer selects today, tomorrow or the following day to check in. The app then searches for the nearest hotels with deals using the smartphone's GPS technology. The consumer selects the hotel she desires and is presented with the checkout page—which is where the mobile magic begins.

On the checkout page, rather than enter all her payment information by hand, she touches the Auto-Scan Credit Card With Camera button, lines up her credit card in her camera sights, and the app reads the data off the card, entering the information for her. This feature, enabled by Netswipe technology from vendor Jumio, kills a lot of what mobile commerce experts like to call friction—anything that stands between the customer and the completion of a purchase.

"You can go through the entire booking process in just a couple of minutes," says Jason J. Fulmines, director of mobile at Travelocity, whose several apps have been downloaded more than 5 million times, he reports. "With smartphones you should be focused on reducing the number of taps, because any time you can reduce taps your conversion should be better because you are able to make it a little easier on folks."

Things in common

Travel firms sell products and services quite different from what retailers have to offer, but they sell via mobile commerce in ways similar to those used by retailers. Retailers can learn from how travel firms go about their mobile business and can benefit, for example, from travel firms' experience and innovation in checkout, personalization and customer feedback. Conversely, some travel firms eye mobile retailers with envy, seeking to learn a few things from their retail counterparts.

Easing the checkout process is a top priority for Travelocity, and Netswipe was its big step forward. Fulmines knows his colleagues in retail share a concern over mobile checkout. "In the retail world the checkout process is always scrutinized," Fulmines says. "You get a lot of abandonment unless you have a very smooth checkout."

Very smooth checkout was the goal of Marriott International Inc. when it designed its mobile commerce app and site. It started where any retailer might, with the content on its e-commerce site. But there's a world of difference between e-commerce and m-commerce, and Marriott found that out when first designing the informational process that leads to the checkout process.

"Hotels are an information-rich product," explains George Corbin, vice president of digital strategy at Marriott. "When I look at the PC world over the years, 20 years ago we had one page and one photo, to what can now be 25 pages rich with photos and tours and video, and as we've done that, booking conversions are growing. People want more information."

The mobile challenge

Now switch over to a mobile device and all of that success becomes part of the challenge, Corbin says.

"People don't want to wade through multiple screens and multiple page views in mobile," he says. "On a smartphone they are in a different urgency mode. I need to rebook right now because my flights changed. On the small screen we have to strip down all of this content. It becomes a design constraint challenge. Let's give the optimum amount of information we can, let's strip down the photos to one core photo, have a separate tap for a tour, and write a real tight synopsis. Here's a thumbnail, here's the rate, click here to see on a map."

Having eased the path to checkout, Marriott made checkout simple by stressing membership in Marriott Rewards, a loyalty club that stores billing and payment information. Rewards members begin checkout by entering their Rewards account user name and password, then all data fields at checkout are automatically populated with their account information. "We really streamline the process," Corbin says.

JetBlue Airways also stresses loyalty club membership to its mobile users through messaging on the home screen of its app. It sees expedited mobile checkout as one of the prime benefits of membership in its TrueBlue club.

"Part of the value proposition of having your TrueBlue account in the app is that it shortens the time it takes you to book," says Jonathan Stephen, senior producer of mobile products at JetBlue Airways. "When you go through the booking flow we present the screens to see the different flights, and when it gets to pages that are data-intensive we fill out the information for you because we have it. For the user that doesn't log in we offer them the opportunity to sign up for the program so subsequent flights won't require them to fill out that information."


JetBlue has used its TrueBlue rewards program for much more than easing checkout. The airline gives members who sign in on the app a highly personalized experience.

Once a member is logged in, the app home screen displays content relevant to the member's next trip. Two weeks away from a flight, for example, the app will display information on restaurants, tourist spots and events at the destination. 24 hours out, the home screen will display flight information and a large Check-In button, so travelers can complete the check-in process and pick their seats before arriving at the airport.

"We wanted to build an app not just to extend booking a flight to mobile but also to deliver information and content and an enhanced travel experience through that device," Stephen says. "If you book a flight on the dot-com or on the device it syncs provided that you booked with your loyalty account. From the time you book to 24 hours before the flight to when you land, the app changes shape and form as you need it. It's very important for travelers to have that relevant information throughout the travel experience."

Retailers can create a similar personalized mobile atmosphere for their shoppers. If a customer is logged in to her account with a retailer that sells DVDs, for example, the retailer could flood the home screen with recommended titles based on past purchase and browsing history. As for the time element, if the retailer knows that customer is a science-fiction film fan, it could highlight an impending sci-fi DVD and its release date, possibly offering the option to pre-order the title.

JetBlue goes beyond the home screen with its personalization efforts. The airline offers free Direct TV satellite television to every flier. The app features a Direct TV schedule that, when a TrueBlue member is logged in, highlights the programs the traveler will be able to watch during his upcoming flight. App users can set reminders on programs and the app will send a push notification message before a program begins. Internet access is not required for the reminders, so smartphone users can keep their devices in airplane mode.

Since it launched the eased checkout process and personalization in February, JetBlue has experienced a significant and steady increase in TrueBlue enrollments via the mobile app, Stephen says, although he declined to reveal specific numbers.

"It's because of that personalization we offer to the mobile customer," he says. "It's an added incentive to the account that made it so successful. We are now seeing a steady stream of TrueBlue members actively using the application."

Customer feedback

While easing checkout and personalizing a mobile site or app can benefit customers in many ways, customers may have something to say about the way these or other processes are being handled. It is crucial to listen to what customers are saying about mobile commerce, especially through app store reviews and formal feedback mechanisms, travel firm executives say. Like travel companies, retailers can guide their mobile initiatives based on consumer sentiment.

Travelocity is adding the ability to book business class and first class flights to its iPad app because of feedback it gleaned from user reviews in Apple Inc.'s App Store.

"That was the No. 1 request in the App Store comments," says Fulmines of Travelocity. "We read every single one of them. If we see five, six, seven people asking for business class booking, that might extrapolate out to a big proportion of our users. You've got to keep an eye on the App Store and do your best to make sure you are addressing legitimate desires and show users in future app upgrades that you have taken their feedback to heart."

Corbin of Marriott also monitors App Store reviews—and takes customer feedback to the next level. The Marriott app features a customer feedback form, and the Marriott m-commerce site features a 16-question survey for customers to take (see picture on this page).

"Mobile is new for everybody so we want to make sure we have our eyes and ears open to the customer," Corbin says. "You can try to interpret what works and what doesn't through tracking data. Sometimes the best bet is the most direct route, so we ask them to take a survey. We have learned things there, and accelerated some things."

For example, Marriott learned from mobile customers about a problem it had with page links deep inside the site.

"We ended up having a challenge when people would do a Google search for 'Chicago hotels,' for example, and our Chicago Marriott pops up and they click on it. On the web through a PC it would take them directly to the hotel's web site. On mobile it would take them to the mobile web site home page, and then they would have to enter their search information again," Corbin explains. "Now we redirect them to a mobile version of that hotel's web site. As a result, we have seen bounce rates fall significantly." A bounce occurs when a consumer lands on a web site page and then leaves that site without visiting other pages.

Always at hand

Acting on customer feedback is important in mobile commerce in part because consumers always have their devices with them. Marriott's Corbin envies retailers with apps and sites that customers are constantly using while in a store. He wants Marriott's app and site to become more like those of some of his retailer counterparts.

"We look at retail where somebody is shopping in a store with their Amazon app open; for us in the travel industry we want the Marriott app always open, and you have to provide a greater array of services to accomplish that," Corbin says. "That's where the next wave of innovation will come from in travel. Commerce is easy. We've had online booking for years. Services is where it gets interesting, all those things that happen after the booking, such as location-based offers."

Travel firms share a lot in common with retailers when it comes to servicing mobile customers, and retailers can look to innovative travel firms for inspiration. What's working well for a travel firm could be a boon for a retailer in m-commerce.




George Corbin, Jason J. Fulmines, JetBlue, JetBlue Airways, Jonathan Stephen, Marriott, Marriott International, mobile booking, mobile commerce, mobile travel, mobile travel apps, November 2012, November 2012 Magazine, travel, Travelocity