Mobile Commerce is Here… For Real

Mobile commerce: There’s an app for that.

Though the mobile channel has taken a few years to catch on, speakers at the Internet Retailer Web Design and Usability Conference last week in Orlando said that m-commerce is starting to make an impact on their businesses.

John Thompson, general manager of electronics retailer, said has he has seen survey results that indicate 36% of smart phone users and 61% of iPhone users are accessing the mobile Internet daily.

“We’ve seen a lot of evidence that this new frontier, the adoption curve is much steeper than we’ve seen in this business,” Thompson said. “The stop-waiting is here. This whole notion of consumer mobility and portability is a very big deal, particularly in the business we’re in.”

In its fiscal year 2009, which ended Feb. 28, 2009, 6.5 million users accessed on a mobile device. Thompson said the early estimate for fiscal 2010, which ends Sunday, is 17 million mobile users.

But mobile users are not just using their phones to shop. Thompson said the most important features for mobile shoppers are search, store finder, product availability in store, overview and product photos, customer reviews and product specifications. He also noted that 46% of shoppers using a mobile device opted for in-store pick-up of their items, while only 30% of shoppers did the same.

“Store finder is a huge thing for us, as is being able to look up inventory while you’re in the car, in route to the store, and even while standing in the store,” Thompson said. “You used to have to engage an associate in the store to see if an item is in stock. Now you can be standing right in the store.”

This is key in that many stores have cut back on staff, and no merchant seems to have enough labor in their stores anymore, Thompson says, “so it’s important as a shopper to have an intuitive approach, which I think plays out pretty well.”

And it’s not just the big brands that are seeing a rise in access via mobile.

“Our mobile traffic has quadrupled in the past year,” said Halley Silver, director of online services at King Arthur Flour, a cataloger of baking products. “It’s definitely something that we’re starting to get serious about.”

In a session about free and inexpensive tools for Web designers, Silver highlighted two that can be used to help design mobile pages.

PhoneGap is an open source program that allows developers to write code in HTML and Java and then create mobile apps from that.

Silver said her development team is using PhoneGap because special expertise in mobile programming and language is not required. Also, the program lets the user write code once and then load it to all the major platforms, including those used for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry.

King Arthur Flour is also using UserAgentSwitcher, an add-on for FireFox. It adds a menu and a toolbar button that allows a user to switch between what a page looke like in FireFox and on an iPhone.

The tool is important, Silver says, because a developer doesn’t have to switch between a computer and an iPhone to see if a design change is working. What’s more, the user can check a competitor’s Website to see what it is doing in the mobile space.

Momentum is clearly favioring iPhone in terms of adoption rate – 65% of smart phones in use in the U.S. are iPhones or iTouches, according to a presentation by Jay Scannell, vice president-Internet technology at SkyMall. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should go out and build an iPhone app.

“I think it’s interesting, but over 60% of the mobile users who come to our site are on a BlackBerry device,” Scannell said. “You need to make sure you’re catering to your perspective customers.”

M-commerce does have its challenges. For example, carriers are trying to deal with demand – Scannell noted that the iPhone craze has increased AT&T’s data traffic 50 times during the past three years.

That’s also meant slow load times for mobile sites. Scannell pointed to a survey of mobile performance by Keynote Systems on some of the top m-commerce destinations, which shows it could take anywhere from eight seconds to 34 seconds for an m-commerce page to load.

The benchmark load time for a mobile site, according to the study, was four seconds.

With BlackBerry and other devices having WiFi capability as well, that technology will help with overburdened traffic, but it’s not a full-time solution, Scannell said.

Consumers are also worried about transactions security.

“We used to hear that customers will never use their credit cards to make an online transaction in e-commerce space, now we’re hearing that with mobile,” Scannell said. “It’s up to us to educate our customers that mobile is a secure environment.”

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