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Why 'wait-and-see' can be a dangerous approach to mobile commerce

By Rudy Pataro, rpataro@fry.com

How do your customers shop your merchandise and compare prices? As late as last year, the answer was, of course, by sitting down at their laptops and visiting your website. By the end of this year, however, chances are that most of your customers won’t even be booting up their computers to comparison shop. They’ll be using their smart phones, and you’d be smart to be ready for them with a mobile website that accommodates their needs.

The Nielsen market research firm recently projected that, by the end of 2011, more than 50% of Americans will be using smart phones. That’s almost double the 28% who owned smart phones in third quarter 2010. While consumers surely will be handling these multi-tasking devices to thumb through e-mails and photos, they also will be carrying them into your stores to visit your website and compare the prices and capabilities of your products with those of your competitors. How will your site look and function when these tech-savvy shoppers view it on their phones? If you have not designed a website specifically for mobile devices, you may surprise, disappoint, and even be scorned by many shoppers.

Currently, only 12% of major retailers (5% of all retailers) have developed a mobile site, while a report from Adobe indicates that more than 80% of businesses in a cross-section of industries are planning or have already deployed a mobile website. Some retailers have turned to apps for smart phones instead, but consumers are overwhelmingly rejecting retail apps in favor of mobile websites. When they want to compare prices, it’s a hassle for shoppers to open the app store, search for the right app, log in, download the app and enter the search terms. They are accustomed to simply using their browser for price comparisons and prefer to do the same with their mobile phones.

Why have so few retailers created mobile sites? In most instances, the reason is simply a failure to appreciate the next technology tsunami that is approaching. Those who took a wait-and-see attitude toward launching e-commerce sites in the 1990s were swamped by the rush to online shopping, and many were washed out of the marketplace. The new wave, powered by mobile devices, already is splashing up against conventional home pages and suburban branches. 

Mobile commerce is not a force that is ready to strike -- it’s already here. Consumers primarily use their mobile phones for comparison shopping, while a small proportion conducts actual transactions through these devices. A survey released last October by Adobe and Keynote Systems found that 43% of consumers have bought movies, music and games through their mobile devices. Another 28% have purchased electronics, and 26% have used their mobile equipment to buy books and magazines.

It’s clear, then, that consumers are already visiting your website through their mobile technology, whether you’ve created a dedicated mobile site or not. What kind of experience do you think they are finding there? In many cases, retail sites created only for computers are virtually unusable when viewed on a mobile phone. Text and images end up askew, and trying to go through online checkout with a phone is a challenge to be taken up only by the most daring shoppers. If for whatever reason you’re still undecided about creating a mobile site, be prepared for customers to quickly jump to the mobile sites of your competitors to compare and shop.

If, on the other hand, you’re ready to start riding the mobile commerce wave, you may want to consider this five-step strategy for providing the marketplace the tools it is demanding:

1.  Begin by understanding who is visiting your website. Use analytics to track those who are checking your site through their mobile devices, and determine how many of those mobile visitors proceed to your checkout, even if it is not optimized for mobile phones. Those analytics may serve as a guide for determining the extent of the work you need to do on your site and the functions on which you should focus your efforts.

2.  Designate someone in your organization to be the point person for understanding and staying on top of the surge toward mobile commerce. This wave rider should remain up to date on all that is happening with mobile -- read articles, learn the technology, try out devices and platforms, and understand the trends. Even if you are working with a third party to build a mobile site, it’s crucial that someone in your organization be immersed in the mobile industry to help guide your site’s development.

3.  If your organization is not going to jump into a mobile site with both feet, it’s still critical that you do a thorough review of your website on mobile devices to see how mobile-friendly it is (or is not) and if it functions well on a phone. Modifying your site to make it at least functional may only take a matter of hours or days, and the result will be that customers can view and use your site, even though it may be more difficult to use than those of competitors with dedicated mobile sites.

4.  If you are ready to create a site optimized for mobile devices, don’t try to lift your entire web content onto the new site. Focus initially on four core areas: the ability to browse through your product catalogue, search capability, product information and a store locator with contact information. These are functions that the great majority of mobile shoppers are seeking.

5.  Once your basic mobile functionality is in place, you can add other capabilities, such as transactions, promotions and merchandise-feature finders.

E-commerce and m-commerce site strategy, design and consulting firms like ours are pursuing additional features that retailers ultimately will be addressing on their mobile sites. These include:

  • Search suggestions, similar to the suggested terms that pop up when entering text into a search engine.
  • Developing new ways to browse so that the “drill-down” of categories from, for example, “Clothing” to “Women” to “Accessories” to “Jewelry” all occurs within a single page instead of requiring the mobile device to consume minutes calling up separate pages.
  • Non-directed activity opportunities, targeted to people in waiting rooms or standing in line that have time to kill and may visit your site to view your top 10 items, your holiday display or merchandise about to go on sale.

For retailers, the word “wait” should be filed away with such terms as “cash register,” “receipt book,” and “correction fluid.” Waiting is obsolete. Indecision over mobile sites is dangerous. It’s time to get your feet wet and surf the wave of mobile commerce.

Rudy Pataro is president of Fry, an e-commerce design and development company and a wholly owned subsidiary of MICROS Systems micros.com. He can be reached at rpataro@fry.com.