One Size Doesn't Fit All Devices: Three Keys to M-Commerce Success

6/3/2013
We live in a mobile society. Reports from separate Pew Research polls in 2012 showed that more than half of Americans now own smartphones and nearly 1 in 4 own a tablet device. But really all you have to do is look around to know this is true. Checking email on a smartphone is the new way to pass time in almost any situation. Train traveling commuters have their tablets handy at all times. We expect to be able to check email, browse the internet, play games and download or stream music wherever we are and whenever we want.

But more importantly for retailers, these devices are increasingly being used to make online purchases. According to a report from eMarketer, tablet and smartphone purchases accounted for 11 percent of total e-commerce sales in 2012. That number is predicted to increase to 13 percent in 2013. These numbers should be of particular interest to the apparel industry as a separate eMarketer study revealed that the apparel and accessories market is growing faster than any other e-commerce product segment.

While this information makes a powerful case for why apparel retailers should have a mobile strategy, it does little to explain how it should be implemented to be most effective. Commerce solutions on mobile devices can't be treated exactly like desktop e-commerce websites. Just as it would be foolish for an apparel retailer to sell only "one-size fits all" products, it's foolish for them to take a "one-size fits all" approach to e-commerce. Below are three key considerations to implementing a successful mobile strategy.

Use mobile to drive sales, not just make sales
Despite all the encouraging numbers about mobile, in the short-term, mobile sales are unlikely to eclipse sales made on traditional laptops and PCs. And when it comes to apparel, online sales are even less likely to eclipse in-store purchases. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, apparel has always been considered an "experience" purchase.

People want to try on clothes in a store and see how they look. While the e-commerce market for clothes and accessories is growing thanks to things like augmented reality — the ability to simulate what a piece of clothing or an accessory might look like on someone — mobile devices cannot duplicate the in-store experience, at least for now.

So, why should apparel retailers invest in mobile? Because a successful e-commerce strategy and, more importantly, a successful multi-channel strategy doesn't require sales to be made on mobile devices. It just requires the mobile device to influence an eventual sale.

On this front, there is little doubt that mobile has an important role to play. According to a Google research report from 2012, nearly 1 in 4 apparel shoppers are using mobile devices on a daily basis for shopping. While most of this "shopping" consists of research and price comparison, the use of a mobile device for this purpose has been shown to drive sales. Google data shows that 1 in 4 "mobile researchers" have purchased apparel more than six times in the last six months and 78 percent spent more than $50 on their last apparel purchase.

Apparel retailers can leverage this group of shoppers by offering digital coupons and discount codes through mobile devices. Additionally, if retailers have a physical store, they can provide store locator information and a list of the local inventory. For the shopper who might be using a smartphone while in a store, QR codes on products may help finalize a sale. Just because a shopper isn't purchasing directly from a mobile device doesn't mean that they can't be influenced into making a purchase.

Not all mobile devices are created equal
A tablet and a smartphone are not the same. For the last few years, many within the industry have grouped tablets and smartphones collectively as "mobile" devices. While this makes sense because they share certain features — they both have touchscreens, Wi-Fi and apps — the way that consumers interact with these devices is quite different. For example, there are twice as many smartphones on the market as tablets, but a recent eMarketer survey points out that purchases on tablets are already outpacing those made on smartphones.

Conversely, the Google study referenced earlier revealed that 31 percent of apparel shoppers use "mobile" devices while shopping in a store. It's hard to imagine that this means they're carrying tablets around with them at all times.  Both of these statistics show that activity that makes sense on a smartphone doesn't always make sense on a tablet and vice versa.

Another major difference between tablets and smartphones is screen size. The screen size of a smartphone and its small touch screen keyboard can deter people from making purchases on it. Typing in personal information, particularly credit card numbers, can be daunting. It can be difficult to get a clear idea of what a product looks like on a smartphone screen. In contrast, most tablets are 60 to 100 percent larger than smartphones.

This creates a significant difference when shopping for apparel items. Clothes rendered on a smart phone screen — no matter how beautiful the garments, the model, or the screen itself — can look like doll clothes; the expanded screen real estate of a tablet enlarges product images back to the dimensions that people are already comfortable with when actually deciding to place an online order.

An effective mobile strategy must recognize the differences and benefits between tablets and smartphones and not mistakenly group both into a single "mobile" strategy without clear distinctions. While sites on both screens should have a similar look and feel, they should play to the strengths of each device. Distributing digital coupons through a tablet app may make less sense than sending them to a smartphone. In contrast, an interactive augmented reality app will likely be more effective on a tablet. 

Account for e-commerce multitasking
The average U.S. household now has five internet connected devices. It's not uncommon for an individual to have a smartphone, a tablet and a computer all within arms length. According to Google, 85 percent of online shoppers start searching for a product on one device, before completing their purchase on another. These "e-commerce multitaskers" or" ambi-device-trous" individuals may feel more comfortable completing a purchase on a laptop or PC rather than trying to punch in their purchasing information with their thumbs.

Multiple devices even enable collaborative purchasing. For example, someone may research a product on their work computer, email a link to their spouse who might email that link to their own personal account, before going home and completing the purchase on a tablet while sitting on the sofa watching TV.

Ultimately, for these customers, the most important aspect of a mobile strategy to consider is integration. Single sign-on, shopping carts that persist for longer periods of time, useful "sharing" options, and an appropriate level of visual and functional consistency—these are the elements that will make for a compelling customer experience, one that takes maximum advantage of the unique attributes of each type of device.

The final word
The truth is there's a lot about the future of the mobile market that we don't understand. How would a mass-marketed version of Google glasses affect the way we view mobile devices? What about recent rumors about an Apple iWatch? There may come a day in the not so distant future that we are so connected with technology that the definition of mobile will change.  

For now, there's no question that apparel retailers without a defined mobile strategy are at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, Those that don't understand that a mobile strategy must be different but also integrated with an overall online strategy aren't in much better shape. To have successful mobile strategy, it's all about finding the right fit.

Michael Harvey is COO of Corra.
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