Remember when people actually debated whether e-commerce was for real? As it would turn out, the merchants who went online first had the last laugh. That's happening all over again, only this time, the device is small enough to fit in your pocket. Mobile e-commerce has arrived with a vengeance, and even this holiday season, iPhone, Android, and other smartphone customers will be giving special consideration to merchant sites that are geared to accommodate them.
If you have any doubts, consider the numbers. ABI Research estimates that mobile online shopping in the U.S. more than tripled from 2008 to 2009, reaching $1.2 billion. The firm projects that globally, consumers will spend $119 billion by 2015 shopping from their mobile phones, accounting for about 8 percent of all e-commerce activity. Juniper Research is even more bullish, projecting that the total value of mobile payments will quadruple from $170 billion in 2010 to $630 billion by 2014.
In other words, the future of mobile commerce is already well under way. So what can you do to prepare? The most important first step is to create a mobile-friendly shopping website. Your goal is to make the mobile version of your website as inviting and easy to use as your regular site, while taking into account the constraints of mobile devices. The request for a second website should not come as a surprise to your website hosting service because this is a clear direction for the industry.
There are at least three “roads” to creating a mobile site. You can use a conversion utility that attempts to create a mobile version of your existing website; you can use one of several mobile site-building tools that use templates to automate the process (Your hosting provider may offer one or both free of charge); or you can collaborate with a website designer experienced with mobile site development. Whatever approach you take, the design criteria is the same: to create a site that will keep your mobile customers coming back.
Clear Layout and Easy Navigation
The biggest difference between smartphones and conventional PCs is screen size. The iPhone 4's diagonal screen size is just 3.5 inches. The new Motorola Droid X, notable for its “large” screen size, has but a 4.3 inches display. Because every square inch matters, a clear layout that’s easy to navigate is crucial. This is especially important on the mobile home page, which should primarily be a set of clearly marked links to the rest of your shopping site. Some of the best mobile site home pages resemble a table of contents, with images beyond the company's logo kept to a minimum.
Use comparatively larger fonts. That might seem counter-intuitive when screen size is so scarce, but your customers may be looking at your site in a train or in a crowd, and they usually will be holding the device, rather than placing it, like a laptop, on a table. In even the steadiest hand, a smartphone won't do well with 6-point type.
Site navigation should also be simpler; visitors to a mobile site have a greater chance of getting disoriented. Don't present too many levels of sub-pages, and on each page, give your customers a clear way to get back to your home page.
For small merchants who are not yet selling merchandise on auction sites, you might want to consider getting onboard because shoppers are taking to tools like eBay mobile in droves. In fact, eBay expects to see $1.5 billion in Gross Merchandise Value transfer through its system by year's end. There are many opportunities for merchants on the mobile Web. By offering auctions that customers can access from their phones, retailers can see a major sales lift.
Simplicity should also carry through to e-mail; make sure that both your correspondence and any links it contains can be easily read on a mobile device.
Mobile Checkout and Bandwidth
Take steps to make your mobile checkout experience a good one. Because mobile Web transactions are often done in public, people feel even less secure about entering credit card and other personal information. Integrating a professional checkout service that stores this data online can make a big difference.
Be mindful of your customers' bandwidth usage by minimizing animation and video streaming. Yes, it's possible to watch a movie from your smartphone. But AT&T, the exclusive carrier for the iPhone, has changed the game by offering a less costly tier--$15 per month instead of $30--with lower bandwidth constraints. That move, which other carriers are expected to follow, is likely to increase the number of smartphone users, but those users will be more cautious in how much data they consume.
You can also harness the power of the mobile Web by linking to other mobile resources. For example, if you want to give directions to your physical store, you might link to the mobile version of a mapping service like Google Maps or MapQuest. You can also take advantage of location-based social networking sites like Foursquare. When people "check in" to your store--telling their friends where they are--you can reward them with discounts and specials.
Those are some good starting guidelines, but before we finish, let's talk about a couple of exceptions to these rules. The first has to do with the inherent limitations of a mobile site, which might, for example, feature fewer items than your regular website. So it's a good idea to give mobile customers an easy way to access your regular home page, even though the design is not optimal for a small screen.
The other exception is the iPad. Apple's new tablet PC is in a class by itself with the iPhone's gesture-recognition user interface, and, of course, is much larger than a smartphone, but smaller than a laptop. Even so, the iPad's 9.7-inch screen is razor sharp, large enough that most e-commerce websites will work just fine.
With so much to do preparing for the holiday season, all these pointers might seem like an impossibly tall order. So at the very least, do this: Grab your favorite smartphone and do some "window shopping" on your favorite e-commerce sites. That will tell you something about the state of the art for mobile shopping. Then visit your own site. The comparison will give you a good sense of the mobile road ahead.
Eddie Davis is the senior director of merchant services at PayPal and is responsible for providing PayPal's payment processing services to thousands of small and medium-sized online retailers. Davis joined PayPal in 2005 with a background in merchant sales and acquisitions.