Is Mobile A Real Channel Or A Second-Rate Sub-Channel?

Written by Evan Schuman
February 18th, 2010

Should mobile be considered its own retail channel or should it just be a sub-channel, something to act as a temporary placeholder for a desktop until the customer can get to a real computer? (Hint: The answer is the same as it was in school. If one answer is going to require a lot more work, that’s the one you’re supposed to choose.)

We’re asking the question because a lot of major retailers today seem to be designing their Web apps based on the assumption that consumers are also using their desktops and that their mobile devices are simply a very temporary point of convenience. But is that how many consumers view mobile devices? What if we zero in on Gen-Y members, who seem to have an effortless natural affinity for these radiation-emitting thumb-typing mini-boxes?

Last week’s story about Pizza Hut’s impressively well-designed iPhone app is a good example. That app is gorgeous, and it works effortlessly. Pizza Hut people spent a lot of time trying to craft an experience that would be both fun and functional.

And yet, the app was clearly designed with the assumption that consumers would not only use it with their desktop system but work with the desktop version first. This approach was so assumed that no instructions are offered with the mobile app; rather, the designers believed that users would access the Web site’s instructions from their desktops.

When we tested the Pizza Hut app’s PCI-compliant credit card function, it refused to accept a credit card on the phone, insisting instead that we pay cash. Turns out the system simply assumed that we had set up a credit card on a desktop. When we deliberately entered a typo in a street address, there again, the app was helpless to fix it. Although the mobile app said nothing, we later learned that only the Web site can fix a typo from the mobile app. (We ran into another issue because we never had created an account on the desktop, nor had the app asked us to. When we tried to set up one on the site, it created more problems. Seems that the app had already created an account for us on the site, something that the app failed to mention.)

But the point of that anecdote is twofold. The stunning level of detail in the Pizza Hut iPhone app is a work of art that required a lot of attention. That suggests the designers’ assumptions weren’t the result of shortcuts; rather, it was a calculated decision for the iPhone app to stand on the shoulders of the desktop app, at least in the beginning.

The second point is that Pizza Hut has rightly stressed that mobile apps should not be mere windows into the Web site; they should be standalone. That sentiment needs to be applauded. But the app turns over crucial functionality—such as entering payment card data and fixing typos—to the desktop.

That said, we have to appreciate that we’re still in the world of first-generation mobile apps. And we need to give these apps a few crutches; after all, it’s hardly a crime that they have to leverage desktops that, candidly, are overwhelmingly going to still be in the picture. It’s still important to note, though, because if apps today are being designed as supplemental, it’s going to get exponentially more difficult to make adjustments down the road.

Consider the origins of the mobile phone. When it was launched, it was programmed and billed on the premise that it was a supplement to the analog hard-wired POTS connection of its day. It was a device to be used on the train, in the car, while waiting for a bus or sitting in a client’s lobby. The idea that people would use a mobile phone at home instead of the analog connection was never seriously considered.

And yet, of course, that ultimately happened. The fact that the initial units were designed to be supplemental phones limited their use for years. Today’s mobile smartphones have the horsepower, RAM, battery life and screen size to function truly standalone. As we start to create the second generation of retail apps, take a hard look at the latest iPhones, Blackberries and even Google’s Nexus One. Don’t you think it’s time they flew solo?


7 Comments | Read Is Mobile A Real Channel Or A Second-Rate Sub-Channel?

  1. Nadia Stahl Says:

    Of course it is a real channel. Just because you have to visit a web site once you are declaring it not a real channel? Whether it’s Bank of America, eBay, Amazon, or even the Pizza Hut app, I use their iPhone applications all the time and never use the actual web site. In the rare case I have to make a change to my address or other account information, I visit the web site – even from my mobile browser. No Big Deal.

  2. Greg Lucas Says:

    I think your real question is this – is a mobile app a channel for all of a company’s customer facing functions? No. Is it a channel for ordering / viewing products? Yes. Is it a channel for customer service? No

    Then again, you could say that about almost any web site, right? The web is not a good channel for customer service. You almost always end up picking up the phone to get things straightened out. That doesn’t mean the web is a sub-channel.

    Just think what your experience would have been like if you deliberately put in a wrong address on Your order likely would have shipped before you could even do anything about it and you would have been jumping through hoops to get it fixed. That doesn’t mean it’s not a real channel, it just means in the odd instances you need to get real service you have to look at other means.

  3. Evan Schuman Says:

    Fair point. The intent of the piece was to suggest that PDAs today–and certainly tomorrow–are quite substantial and that more can be done on them. Many apps are designed in a way that they need a desktop–or at least direct access to the full Web site–and I’m suggesting that much more could be standalone on the phone. It will always be a balance, but I’m encouraging the balance to favor the phone a bit more. A standalone app should be able to work, well, standalone. The power is there, but we may have to start morphing how we think.

  4. cee_m_bee Says:

    The important point here is that mobile retail strategy should incorporate both mobile applications and optimized mobile sites, offering a unified approach. After all, ‘standalone’ is hardly in the spirit of multichannel retailing.

  5. Evan Schuman Says:

    Agreed! By the way, the term “multichannel” is itself not in the spirit. We prefer the term “merged channel.”

  6. Suzy Meriwether Says:

    Mobile is just one more way for a consumer to interact with a company. What I want as a consumer is the same tools, the same application, the same service no matter what channel of communications I use – mobile, phone, web site or my XBOX controller. Interactions should be device independent. And companies who are building applications for the same function (ordering pizza) to work differently on each device set themselves up for failure. And, I object to the earlier point that mobile can’t be used for Customer Service. It can and is. It is a major role of mobile in the future. But remember, it’s just one more device.

  7. Greg Lucas Says:

    Suzy – I agree in a perfect world that is what we all want but there are trade-offs with everything. I think less than 5% of all web sites offer real customer service. Filling out a form on a web site for them to get back to me later is not customer service.

    You say mobile apps are being used for Customer Service? Please share examples of mobile apps where I can get real customer service


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