The M-Commerce Tipping Point Is Now

With the age of the PC declared officially over–smartphones outsold PCs for the first time in 4Q 2010–American retailers are all asking the same question: When will the m-commerce tipping point arrive? The answer is, it’s happening now. But to emerge as true mobile commerce winners, smart marketers will still need to overcome numerous barriers to mass consumer adoption.

What exactly is m-commerce? To find out, we recently interviewed consumers at America’s top retail centers and malls, from New York’s Soho and Fifth Avenue districts to The Grove and Santa Monica Place in Los Angeles. What we discovered is that consumers limit their definition of m-commerce to the actual act of making purchases via mobile phones. We also learned something unexpected. Consumers are surprisingly self-conscious about their phones’ capabilities and perceived limitations when it comes to m-commerce–specifically around purchasing. Two factors are driving this phenomenon.

First, some smartphone users have a bad case of device envy–you could call it the “if I had an iPhone” syndrome. Most often Blackberry owners, these shoppers simply do not believe their smartphone is up to snuff when it comes to surfing the mobile Web or using shopping-enabled apps.

Second, users of traditional mobile phones generally–and incorrectly–believe their phone is not m-com enabled. Even if they are aware of their device’s capabilities, they do not believe they can afford the necessary data plan.

With AT&T launching the first tiered data plans last year and T-Mobile introducing $10 per month data plans last month, this is one problem that will take care of itself, and another important reason the tipping point is now.

Despite consumers’ self-consciousness about their smartphones’ supposedly limited capabilities and their very literal view of m-commerce as purely purchase-driven, many are already incorporating these always-at-their-sides devices into their shopping routines-even if they don’t know it! They use their smartphones to scout out store locations, look up competitors’ prices and snap photos of potential purchases to share with friends and family.

Smartphone users are, of course, making certain purchases on their devices. They tend to be inexpensive, commoditized and time-sensitive items, such as movie tickets or exclusive, act-now deals. What works is what’s easy and immediate.

Right now, apps, more than anything else, are enabling these transactions. User-friendly, intuitive and efficient, with pre-populated credit card and shipping fields, apps let consumers buy seamlessly, rather than struggle with entering account numbers on an iPhone, something few want to do in the heat of the shopping moment. Amazon, eBay, Gilt Groupe, Fandango and Flixster are putting apps to work successfully today.

But apps have drawbacks. Who wants to download a separate one for every store where you might shop? This is where the mobile web can and should come into play.

Unfortunately, many mobile sites tend to fall short right now. They are often oversimplified and lack the full functionality of traditional e-commerce sites. Worse yet, they are not optimized for phone browsers–slow to load, with broken links and menus that don’t fit small screens.

So, where does this all leave us? Well, with smartphone users already making time-sensitive purchases, data-plan prices coming down and more sophisticated devices on the way, it’s clear the m-commerce tipping point is upon us. Smart marketers need to concentrate on making it easier for smartphone users to find what they want, where and when they want it. The key will be mixing and matching the best of the mobile web and apps, from easy-and-fast downloads to geolocation and store locator features to social media integration, multiple platform compatibility and more.

For those that can get it right, the mobile commerce possibilities are boundless–with transactions literally taking place anytime, everywhere.

Jane Randel is Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications & Brand Services for Liz Claiborne Inc.

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