For all the differences between mobile websites and the much-hyped world of downloadable apps, in few fields does the difference shine clearer than in online shopping.
Shoppers are fickle creatures, liable to decide whether or not to make a purchase within mere seconds of dwelling on the question. They're all the harder to catch when they're fiddling with small-screened smartphones. In order to catch the shopper when the impulse to buy strikes, online merchants can hardly ask users to visit an app store, download an app, fire it up, then learn how to use it – especially if they're standing in an aisle, comparison-shopping.
"It's hubris to think that people will go into your app," unless you're a big brand, says Gary Schwartz, chief executive officer of Toronto-based mobile marketing firm Impact Mobile and the author of Impulse Economy, a study of mobile shopping.
As it turns out, there already exists a platform for mobile shopping that's already on every smartphone: The open Web.
A mobile Web application – basically, an enhanced, mobile-optimized website, as opposed to a downloadable smartphone app – should be the first destination for any merchant looking to move sales into the mobile space. They're more flexible, faster to deploy, and can catch shoppers where and when they want to buy.
It's easy to describe a mobile Web application in concept. Designed with the mobile-centric customer in mind, here's how it might look in practice:
Putting the pieces together
A mobile shopping site, like a regular online store, is an assemblage of several moving parts. A content management system like Drupal [ or WordPress hosts the bulk of the website (formatted with a view for mobile devices), serving shoppers with product information.
Shopping cart software keeps secure track of what shoppers want to order; an array of Web-based shopping cart software is available, some, like MobiCart , optimized for mobile sites.
Finally, a payment processing company handles the actual financial transaction, working with credit card companies to collect card data and deliver cash to the merchant's bank account.
Typically, all of these pieces are woven together by a professional Web developer. Alternately, one-stop shops like Ottawa-based Shopify provide the whole system as a ready-to-go package, for a monthly fee, including a mobile-optimized website.
Reduce the clicks to commerce
If there's a mantra to designing a mobile sales application, it comes down to minimizing the number of clicks it takes to get a shopper through the checkout – the proverbial "clicks to commerce."
This is good advice for any shopping site, but it's all the more important in the mobile world, where even keystrokes count as clicks. (After all, a user has to touch the screen to key in each letter while filling in a form.)
The goal is to avoid "abandoned intent" – the moment at which a shopper, having decided he or she wants something, gets frustrated by the process and abandons the sale mid-way. Even the smallest irritations that could dissuade shoppers could cost a sale.
"Every click is one more reason for them to abandon their intent," Mr. Schwartz says.
One of the trickiest parts of the process to navigate for the mobile shopper is checkout, which can involve the fiddly entering of names and credit card numbers. The mobile-payment industry is in flux, with competing platforms at the moment, but a number of players are competing to make the process easier. PayPal, for instance, eliminates the need to enter credit card numbers, asking instead for just a login and password; credit-card companies like Visa are readying their own entries.
And independent payment processors are offering their own solutions, like the one from Toronto-based Admeris Payment Systems , which identifies and remembers mobile users' devices, only requiring them to enter their credit card information the first time.
"If it takes more than three seconds, your conversions are going to fall off a cliff," says Michael Shvartsman, Admeris' managing director.
Where is the traffic coming from, and where is it going?
Mr. Shvartsman says that retailers make the mistake of designing mobile stores as shrunken-down versions of their desktop websites, when what's called for is a whole design rethink.
For instance, consider how shoppers will arrive at your site. Mr. Schwartz says that as few as 30 per cent of mobile users arrive at a website through its home page. The majority either find specific items through search engines, direct links, or promotional vehicles like opt-in e-mail promotions for sale items.
This creates an opportunity to capitalize on shopper interest: If shoppers have touched a "buy now" link in an e-mail, don't just take them to a picture of the item and hope they take the next step; automatically put it in their shopping cart and direct them to a checkout page, so that if they want to make the purchase, they can proceed with a single touch. In contrast, definitely do not send them to your home page, leaving them to navigate your site to find out what you want.
Also, remember that e-mail is not the only way to reach customers. Mr. Schwartz recommends text-message-based promotions (which Impact Mobile, his firm, helps implement), by which users opt into receiving SMS offers with embedded hyperlinks, which can be clicked on, leading to a one-click checkout page.
It's the kind of flexibility that only the Web can deliver.
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