Mobile commerce is one of the most discussed, yet least understood, disciplines in commerce. What passes for mobile commerce today often amounts to little more than a simple iPhone application or a mobile-optimized Web site. Both of these are building blocks for a greater mobile commerce strategy, but they do not even begin to tap into the potential of the mobile platform.
Mobile truly has created an "always on" society, where people are online and accessible 24 hours per day. Mobile platforms have become more than simple communications devices; they are lifestyle assistants that enable people to connect, interact, inform, and influence. Because of this, they are also an incredibly valuable piece of the commerce puzzle; no other channel provides such a direct and continuous connection to customers and prospects.
Understanding mobile's strengths is critical to successfully incorporate mobile into the commerce equation. When implemented properly, mobile complements other channels, and vice versa. And yet, from a technology perspective, most mobile commerce initiatives today are either standalone efforts or "bolted on" technology to existing eCommerce platforms. Both approaches represent a problem: Mobile commerce is limited as a standalone function and can actually be counterproductive if it is not in sync with and appropriately integrated into other channels.
For example, an iPhone application that shows minimal product details and pricing is of limited use unless it includes a mechanism to drive customers to an online site or physical store where they can ask questions about and/or purchase the product. And it is of no use at all to the majority of customers who own Blackberrys, Android handsets, and other non-iPhone platforms. This is not to say there is anything wrong with iPhone applications that show product information and pricing, it just demonstrates that such an application does not an overall mobile commerce strategy make.
Unlocking Mobile's Potential
So how can you take advantage of the mobile channel and make it more impactful from both a customer communications AND a commerce standpoint? There is a vast array of opportunities to drive business value immediately with mobile, without incurring unnecessary expense or complexity. Some of those opportunities include the following:
- In-Store Shopping Applications: Mobile devices can become "virtual salespeople" by providing applications that enable customers to check product availability (both in-store and online), compare prices with other outlets, and access reliable product information. (Enabling price comparisons with other outlets seems counterintuitive, but it's actually beneficial because it can help to keep customers in-store to negotiate pricing rather than having them leave to check pricing elsewhere.)
- Mobile Barcodes: Mobile barcodes are a powerful way to integrate mobile and in-store initiatives to drive customer engagement and in-store transactions. For example, when retailers enable mobile barcode functionality, customers can use the camera in their mobile phone to "scan" a picture of a barcode, which can then bring up a special landing page for that product or group of products. This can provide customers with instant product and pricing details and create opportunities for cross- or upselling. These same capabilities could also provide the ability to generate coupons or vouchers that encourage impulse buying in the store.
- Location-Based Services: Also providing ways to drive in-store sales, mobile store-locator applications can guide customers to the nearest store, or the nearest store that has a specific product in inventory, and also provide coupons for use in-store.
- Multichannel Engagement: Mobile can become the first point of contact with a potential customer, who can then be transferred to a different online or offline channel. For example, a coupon could be used as an incentive to download a mobile application, with the coupon redeemable at the online or brick-and-mortar store. Mobile is also a great way to provide customer updates. SMS messages, email, or automated phone calls can be used to notify customers of product availability or special promotions, driving them to stores, both online and physical, and providing them with vouchers to encourage purchases.
- Closing the Sale: Actual mobile transactions have been slow to evolve, due primarily to security and technical considerations. Most of these issues have now been resolved, making mobile an appropriate channel for capturing customer information and executing transactions.
Today's mobile infrastructure has leapfrogged mobile commerce strategy, and mobile platform capabilities are progressing rapidly with the continuing proliferation of smart phones, powerful mobile browsers, and faster cellular networks. For this reason, mobile commerce must evolve beyond its current "iPhone app" phase of development to be most effective for businesses and their customers. The time has come for mobile to become a rich, multifunction commerce platform that drives traffic, sales, and customer satisfaction.
Carsten Thoma founded Hybris Group, a multichannel commerce software service provider, in 1997 and currently serves as chief operating officer. For more information on Hybris, visit www.hybris.com.