Mobile Shopping Is Big – But It's Not Where It Could Be


Small phone big hands

We know that people are shopping on their phones, in greater and greater numbers. But are they liking the experience?

It turns out that small screens and big fingers, which lead to texting typos and the accidental hitting of “send,” are also ticking off mobile shoppers big time.  A consumer survey by Tealeaf, a software company studying online shopping behavior, found that respondents thought mobile shopping was more frustrating than sitting in traffic or visiting the DMV.  Which must mean they find it, well, pretty infuriating.

And yet, people continue to shop on their smartphones (just as they continue to commute to work and go to the DMV).  Estimates say that consumers bought $1.1 billion worth of goods over their phones during the last quarter of 2010.  Granted, that figure represents only 2.6% of total e-commerce purchases.

Many retailers still don’t even have mobile sites. And the ones that do are being forced to re-think their sites to face the fact that mobile shopping, for all the optimistic reports, isn’t where it could be. A study commissioned by Liz Claiborne Inc. (the sponsor of this site) found that one major hurdle keeping consumers from mobile shopping is device envy — the so-called “If I only had an iPhone” syndrome. But the Tealeaf results indicate that even iPhone users are frustrated with mobile’s limitations.

Some of the basic mobile re-tooling by retailers reportedly includes:

  • Voice Search
  • One-Touch Checkout
  • Bar Code Scanning

To be fair,  smartphone users are using their devices for retail purposes beyond simply buying from a mobile app — they scout out store locations, look up competitors’ prices and snap photos of potential purchases to share with friends and family. And according to the study commissioned by Liz Claiborne, sales of inexpensive and time-sensitive items, like movie tickets or exclusive “act-now” deals, are seeing great success in the mobile web.

But as we’ve said before, the key to a successful mobile shopping experience is overall simplicity.  Jeanie Bunker, the general manager of retail at Alibris (an online bookseller) put it well when she told the New York Times: “When you transform a giant PC screen onto a little device, you have to decide what not to bring along.”

To optimize mobile web use, transactions must be designed to counter mobile’s weaknesses — like typing.  The flash-sale site Rue La La, for instance, asks you to log into their app as soon as you open it, so when you want to check out, you’ll have instant access to your account information.  Asking customers to log in at the end of the transaction runs the risk of creating a nuisance and interrupting a sale.

Granted, there are some things online retailers have little power to change — like the general frustration of typing on a phone.  Entering a credit card number isn’t going get easier for anyone’s fingers.  While the rise of the mobile wallet (or “speak your info” features) could eventually solve this problem,  some sites have developed avenues for bucking mobile payment altogether, while still allowing mobile shopping.  For example, Hipmunk (a flight and hotel search provider), will send you a link or a password to complete the payment part of your transaction later, once you’re at a computer.

Ideas like this present the sort of multi-platform approach that will have legs in the future.  After all, it’s important not to forget the reason mobile shopping is growing so fast in the first place — it’s hugely accessible, and will only become more so.


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