Mobile's surge

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Brands embrace m-commerce by developing apps and building sites for smartphones and tablet users
Brands embrace m-commerce by developing apps and building sites for smartphones and tablet users

Sending one-way communications to consumers on mobile devices or optimizing a website for mobile is no longer good enough. Brands must now be able to optimize mobile channels in a way that enables consumers to make purchases, track pricing and comparison shop whenever and wherever they wish to in order to remain relevant. That includes mobile versions of websites, as well as custom mobile apps.

According to a February 2012 Consumer Electronics Association M-Commerce Forecast, 90% of consumers own a tablet, a smartphone or a cell phone. Of these consumers, 37% are engaging in some form of mobile commerce. On average, consumers spent $642 on mobile purchases in the past 12 months — a whopping $124 billion overall — the report revealed. The Internet spawned e-commerce, and in the past few years, the iPhone has spawned m-commerce.

A differentiated approach

Perhaps no company better understands the value of m-commerce than Staples. The company invested in a new mobile commerce site,, in 2011, as well as new mobile apps. The redesigns came roughly a year after the company invested in its first ever mobile site and app.

In January, Staples said it would open an e-commerce innovation center in Massachusetts, designed to bring new ideas to market in m-commerce and social media, and in early February, the company launched a new website optimized for tablet browsing. Staples partners with technology vendors Skava on the tablet site, Expicient on the mobile apps and Usablenet on the mobile website.

The new features a shopping cart that synchronizes in real time with a user's cart, a GPS-powered store locator, store inventory look-up and enhanced on-site search, including an auto-suggest feature. is designed more for research, while the apps are meant to facilitate commerce, says Staples' mobile strategist.

“Between a smartphone and a tablet, tablets are more transactional in nature,” says Prat Vemana, director of mobile strategy at Staples. “We brought out the convenience of reorders for the tablet redesign, [including] faster checkout and the ability to access rewards. We've optimized it for transactions. The mobile site is optimized for research.”

Walmart also uses its mobile site to enable product research and purchase preparation. The company launched its first mobile site and apps in 2010 and has since made several upgrades. Currently, the mobile site offers product details, customer ratings and reviews, and pricing information.

Walmart's iPhone app enables consumers to add items to a shopping list by speaking, typing or scanning bar codes. Consumers can use the app to calculate total price in real time as specific items are added to mobile shopping lists, and they can find the in-store aisle location of products in select stores across the country.

“We're at an exciting time of transformation, both for our customers and our business, as we move into the next generation of retail that integrates online, social, mobile and our physical stores,” says Paul Cousineau, VP of mobile products, Global E-commerce at Walmart. Although he would not reveal sales or traffic data, he says mobile apps drove “significant traffic” to during the holiday season in 2011, and many of the shoppers were customers that had never previously purchased on the site. Walmart launched its first iPad app last November. is widely recognized as the inventor of the mobile commerce space. The online retailer built its first m-commerce site in 1999 and its first apps in 2008. The company uses a distinct approach for each mobile channel.

“It was important to include meaningful and familiar aspects of the Amazon experience [on mobile sites] like one-click purchasing, customer reviews and wish lists,” says Sam Hall, director of Amazon Mobile. “We also offer mobile applications tailored to specific devices to make the shopping experience faster and easier.”

Amazon has apps for the iPhone, Android phones, Kindle Fire, iPad, Blackberry and Windows Phone 7. Unlike mobile websites, apps enable consumers do things like access the device's camera for barcode scanning and use voice input as an alternate search method, Hall says.

“We designed our Amazon mobile app so that a customer could both search for and find a particular item, and [then] buy it within a very short period of time,” Hall says. “This means the design had to be simple and ‘glance-able' at first view, but still offer a path to more detailed product information.”

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