Today’s Retail Mobile Commerce: The Smartphone Meets A Train Wreck

Written by Evan Schuman
July 9th, 2009

With consumers becoming sharply more interested in mobile commerce and handsets getting closer to the point where it’s feasible (thanks, Apple. Between M-Commerce and the early GUI pre-Windows days, to paraphrase Han Solo, “that’s two we owe you”), retailers are finally starting to deploy. But it does not look like they’re taking it very seriously.

On the deployment side, about one in every 20 of the largest E-tail sites now support mobile, according to figures released by m-commerce consulting firm Acquity Group. But those rollouts reflect a lack of standardization (or even basic consistency) and suggest a community that is overwhelmed by the radically different environments (screen resolution, size, OS capabilities, etc.) offered by the major phones today in the U.S..

Adam Boysen, an Acquity project manager, for example, points to the fact that some sites try and automatically detect a mobile customer while others place the onus on the consumer to replace “www” with “m” if they want the mobile experience.

The existence of many different browsers (and browser versions), OSes (and OS versions), screens and CPUs is nothing new for E-Commerce executives who have been fighting those battles on the desktop for years. But that’s the Catch-22 that bedevils m-commerce strategies. When a major retailer updates their site, it’s tested on most—if not all—of the relevant platforms and browsers. If necessary, different versions of the site dedicated solely to one platform each will be created to guarantee that the site looks the way it’s designed for almost all Web visitors.

But such resources simply do not exist for most retail M-Commerce launches, with many satisfied having one mobile version for all devices and OSes. That will change, of course, as the number of purchases on m-commerce increases, but that’s where the Catch-22 kicks in. Retailers won’t create robust mobile experiences until there are enough purchases being made on the phones, but that’s likely to be dramatically slowed because today’s experiences are not compelling enough to encourage a lot of purchasing.

Today’s typical m-commerce site is fine for research—limited research—but completing purchases are not usually fun. (I’m still using a Palm so downgrade my purchase experience from “not fun” to “death, where is thy sting?”)

Even sticking with the major smartphones doesn’t eliminate the browser battle, Boysen said. “A lot of Blackberry users have opted to use Opera’s browser,” which creates a very different experience, he said. “The Safari browser on the iPhone is much more robust than the typical smartphone browser” and the large and crisp screen of the iPhone helps as well.

The original mobile deployments were little more than text-based stripped down versions of the retailer’s main Web site. This is in stark contrast with desktop deployments, which tended to go too far with graphics and animation to create, as Boysen said, “dynamic interactions. But the mobile experience to date, they’ve gone in the opposite direction, trying to dumb it down as much as possible. They dumbed it down too much, in the sense that the retailer can’t make a significant investment.”

A few top-tier retailers—such as Wal-Mart and Sears—do a little bit more in terms of detecting various mobile phones, Boysen said. A popular capability, for example, is identifying the iPhone, which allows for a much more compelling experience.

When talking with Boysen for this column, we visited FootLocker’s mobile site, which worked well, until I tried to purchase something. Seems that “certain elements are not WAP optimized,” which meant it permitted no purchases from my smartphone.

There’s little debate that mobile commerce is the future of retailing. But if retailers don’t start testing and treating mobile just as it’s done for the desktop, they’re surrendering revenue to the few that will invest.


One Comment | Read Today’s Retail Mobile Commerce: The Smartphone Meets A Train Wreck

  1. Ram Says:

    Some vendors provide customizable internal frameworks that claim to have been tested on a whole host of browsers and are capable of adapting the content to the capabilities of the device. Thus even sites that are not WAP optimized specifically can be passed through a device filter optimizing the content to the specific characteristics. Today mobile web technology has improved many fold and is capable of rendering content adapted websites on the lower end browsers as well as browsers like Apple Mobile Safari.


StorefrontBacktalk delivers the latest retail technology news & analysis. Join more than 60,000 retail IT leaders who subscribe to our free weekly email. Sign up today!

Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

Our apologies. Due to legal and security copyright issues, we can't facilitate the printing of Premium Content. If you absolutely need a hard copy, please contact customer service.