Listen Up: Mobile Retail Isn't Just About Apps

In the mobile industry, hype usually outpaces true performance by a substantial margin. But mobile commerce -– the business of conducting transactions on mobile phones –- is gaining real traction, much of it driven by the mobile web. So while downloadable smartphone applications are the hottest thing in mobile, retailers looking to hawk their stuff to on-the-go users need to make wireless websites their top priority.

“Mobile commerce” is an overly broad term; it includes everything from buying and downloading apps and content (a wildly successful space thanks to the emergence of the iPhone) to the concept of using a phone as a kind of credit card at the retail counter (a segment that has yet to grow legs despite plenty of investment). But another segment is quietly generating money: selling physical goods to consumers over the mobile web. And it’s a potentially huge industry.

eBay is gunning for a whopping $1.5 billion in mobile sales this year, and Amazon’s mobile site traffic is second only to eBay among vendors of real-world stuff, according to figures from Nielsen. An annual survey from Deloitte last year that found that one in five consumers planned to use their mobile phones to shop during the 2009 holiday season, 25 percent of whom said they intended to make purchases on their phones.

Of course, many mobile purchases of real-world goods are being conducted through handset-specific apps that provide a highly optimized user experience. But building an iPhone application isn’t a surefire path to success. Some offerings are plagued with performance problems or inadequate functionality, and many simply aren’t much better than a mobile site. More importantly, mobile applications by definition can address only a small fraction of the potential market.

The iPhone accounted for only 16.6 percent of worldwide smartphone shipments in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to ABI Research, and Strategy Analytics pegged the iPhone’s share of the overall handset market at a mere 3 percent. Meanwhile, it’s difficult –- if not impossible –- to find a mobile phone on retail shelves that doesn’t have at least a rudimentary browser.

As I describe in my column at GigaOM Pro this week, there are a few approaches online retailers can take to maximize mobile sales regardless of which device users have in hand:

  • Develop clean, simple mobile pages that require minimal data transmissions.
  • Offer mobile storefronts with stripped-down but still innovative features targeting phone users.
  • Focus on simple, secure payment systems, whether you’re selling via apps or the mobile web.

Make it easy for users to tune into the mobile web to comparison shop, get product information and close the deal. Vendors who do those things will watch their mobile sales ramp up dramatically. Read the full post here.

Image courtesy of Flickr user 2 dogs

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