Converging trend lines show that the importance of mobile computing and smartphone shopping is beginning to be seen on the retail front. Noting the convergence of shoppers and cellular devices, smaller retailers who source products online are going to be deciding, and soon, just how to tackle the coming wave of consumers who want to buy with their phones and tablets.
However, there are a number of hurdles that retailers have to cross, starting with the most fundamental: Does mobile shopping even matter? Consider some facts. Dow Jones reports, "the amount purchased through mobile devices is still a sliver of the total spent on retail, but the mobile number is expected to triple this year, after tripling last year."
Something like 300 percent annual growth sounds like a lot, but that's starting from a base of close to $0.00. The actual dollar volume of mobile transactions remains vanishingly slim. More relevant to an audience conducting business-to-business trade online, one major wholesale directory site has seen very little sign of a move to mobile shopping. WholesaleCentral.com reports that less than one percent of its shoppers are even browsing the directory with mobile devices.
Then there is the hype, as typified by a report on SmartPlanet.com, with the misleading headline, "Survey: Mobile Shopping Will Account for More Than One-Fourth of Holiday Spending." The article reports that a new survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers by IDC Retail Insights finds, "mobile shopping will account for or influence up to 28 percent, or $127 billion, of the $447 billion the National Retail Federation predicts U.S. consumers will spend this holiday season." The weasel words there are, "or influence."
Similarly, the article quotes the NRF itself: "More than one-fourth of Americans who have a smartphone will use their mobile device to shop for gifts, compare prices and research products (or read reviews, buy merchandise, find nearby stores)." The misleading part of that statistic is that it applies to shoppers who have smartphones, still only a small segment of the population. Are shoppers actually placing orders online? Not so much. Are they using their phones in stores to look up competing products and do price comparisons? Increasingly, yes, they are.
So the next hurdle to consider is actual use. Are customers using cellular devices for product information? Are they comparison shopping specific items? If a retailer looks at online traffic reports and sees a growing number of users browsing via mobiles, but not buying, it may be because they are comparing products. One application, or "app," for Apple's iPhone called Shop Savvy, lets a shopper use the on-board camera as a barcode reader and then reports prices from a range of online merchants. Other similar and free smartphone programs include TheFind and Google Shopper. A number of apps debuted specifically for the purpose of finding Black Friday deals last Thanksgiving, according to a report from Buffalo, NY's WGRZ News.
The final hurdle is a trickier one. Looking ahead, will mobile sales matter and when? Or, put another way, where are the trends really converging? News flash: for smartphones, the kids are leading the way. One online survey reported by InformationWeek, claims that, "Young adults browse via mobile more than desktop." That survey, polling users of a second-tier browser called Opera, has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it is clear that young shoppers are using cell phones to access the Internet more than their elders are. Retailers and business professionals may shake their heads and mutter about "kids these days," but for a growing population, a phone is not just, or even primarily, a way to have a voice conversation. According to TechnologyReview.com, published by MIT, soon cell phone users will be able to use their phones instead of their credit cards to make purchases at registers, with a wave instead of a swipe. Evidently, there is or soon will be an app for that. With sales of Apple's iPad and its few competitors showing no sign of lagging, retailers are making apps that double as retail catalogs and storefronts. In addition, these tablet devices use cell phone operating systems. Given sales of cell phones and tablets, and given the enthusiastic adoption rates by tomorrow's shoppers, the move to mobile eretailing does seem inevitable, looking far ahead.
So how can a given know that making a mobile-friendly site is worth the investment? Here are some points to consider. Retailers selling mass market items at very competitive prices are more likely to benefit from comparison shopping apps, says The New York Times. Sellers of unique or boutique goods, much less so. Retailers catering to a youth market, or selling electronics or games or items that appeal to early adopters, are also natural candidates for a mobile friendly site. In addition, some retailers see an advantage to hopping on the mobile bandwagon early, since they are going to get on eventually. Of course, there are plenty of voices urging retailers to jump on board, but those voices are often the voices of tech pundits and tech shills; companies selling ways to get online, service providers who want retailer business, and others with a vested interest in promoting a new medium. If a retailer does think it is time to go serve cell phone and tablet users, there are several paths available. Here are a few of the options to consider:
1. Build an app. According to Econsultancy.com, a custom app has the advantages of appealing to an affluent smartphone user base; offering greater functionality by harnessing extra capabilities, like geolocation, and offering visibility in app stores if an app proves popular.
2. Build a mobile site separate from an existing retail site. According to DotMobi CEO Trey Harvin, "If you want to be found on Google by people using mobile phones, you need a mobile website. Google displays mobile-friendly sites first when using mobile search." Of course, he runs a company that makes mobile sites. Still, it is a good way to have a decent level of control over what mobile users see online.
3. Make your existing site mobile friendly. It is relatively easy, using style sheets that change depending on the browsing platform, to feed different site visitors tailored versions of an existing site, optimized for good reading and browsing. This process can be handled by developers, or automated by different utilities. The former almost always costs money, but there are a number of cheap or free utilities that can help with the latter, including 13 free plug-ins for WordPress, according to Steven Snell at DesignM.ag.
No matter what means you use to put your site on shoppers' cell phones, there are a number of design considerations that matter in enhancing usability. Consider this list, compiled from tips by Entrepreneur.com and Mobify:
Tip 1: Use a clear layout and easy navigation. Make fonts bigger for eyes looking at jittering screens. Moreover, since that screen is small, use as much of it as possible.
Tip 2: Be gentle with user bandwidth. Many service providers are putting caps on bandwidth usage, so avoid large file sizes and memory hogging photos and videos. This will offer the added benefit of shorter load times and smaller page sizes, helping users avoid the dreaded "page too large to load" syndrome.
Tip 3: Reassure nervous customers with a secure checkout service. Because cellular payments can be made in public places, end-users may feel less secure about plugging in credit card numbers or other personal data. However, using a third party professional checkout service that keeps this data online can help reassure these shoppers.
Tip 4: Design for a cellular-touch interface. Expect users to touch, not click, so avoid tiny links and buttons. However, avoid pinching and zooming unless your content has a particular reason to use them. Be sure to avoid Flash, which some smartphones cannot read at all.
Is it a good idea for a given retailer to invest in mobile customers who are not yet beating a path to the front door? There may be solid reasons to do so, but they need to be weighed carefully. Understand that there is a lot of hype boosting the importance of this new way to shop, as well as many voices urging adoption for their own reasons, not for the reasons that matter most to small retailers.
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