E-Commerce Site Crashes To Soar This Holiday Season, With Upgrades, Partners And Discount Traffic The Likely Culprits

When Sears rolled out its mobile effort (Sears2go) this month, it illustrated the challenges for a retailer trying to craft a clean and stable mobile strategy at a time of extreme flux for the mobile space.

In a sense, the first decision on mobile a retail chain needs to make is the cellphone's equivalent of the age-old buy-versus-build debate. Do you take your full-fledged E-Commerce site and strip out almost all of the images and the most sophisticated functionality until it's barely one step ahead of pure ASCII? Or do you add an extensive layer—most likely outsourced—that tries to interpret and translate queries and responses from your full Web site into something a smartphone can handle?

Both have their downsides. The ultra-stripped-down approach will likely eliminate some of the most powerful conversion tools (comments, advanced search and specification comparisons, demos, etc.) and the translation approach will need to be redone frequently, to coincide with changes in mobile OSs and hardware in addition to changes in your own site's functionality.

Sears opted for the "buy" versus "build" option and went for the translation tactic. Ravi Acharya, a director of E-Commerce at Sears Holdings, said the move "wasn't a very large investment," set the company back something in the "couple of hundred thousand dollar range" and took about three months to develop, test and deploy.

Sears' mobile offering should work on any smartphone, but the concentration of the market today makes the plethora of phones almost irrelevant. "The top 10 phones are where 99 percent of our (mobile) sales are coming from," Acharya said.

ABI Research on Thursday (Nov. 13) released its latest smartphone stats and saw a huge increase coming for such devices, "with highly capable Internet browsers on smartphones expanding from 130 million in 2008 to 530 million by 2013."

The technical back-and-forth communication between the Sears Web servers and a third-party server handling the translation of the content to the consumer smartphone is not clear. Usablenet is handling that service for Sears and is also in talks with Wal-Mart, but the vendor declined to explain how the communication happens, other than to say that it somehow "creates a dynamic on-the-fly view of the original Web site, removing the need for the mobile browser to support JavaScript or AJAX, while maintaining the features associated with them."

Sears' Acharya said that "there's this server layer that pretends it's an actual user sitting there." It appeared to be taking the queries from the mobile device and translating the back-and-forth with the Sears' E-Commerce servers.

One interesting Sears2Go feature is a mobile version of buy-online-pick-up-in-store, except that the traditional E-mail notification for the PC becomes an SMS alert for the phone.

The key goal, said Acharya, was "the simplicity of use. We want (consumers) to be able to come in and get out pretty fast. We've been stripping out all of the fancy stuff." Among items to go: PDF downloads, product recommendation details and product manuals.

The current site has a very clean look, but it's not necessarily that optimized for mobile. For example, a search for dryers invites the mobile visitor to download a 6-MByte PDF. Heaven help the consumer who tries to do that and maneuver the PDF on a typical PDA. PDA viewing, Acharya said, can be challenging even on the PDA with the best interface: the iPhone.

M-Commerce is just one part of Sears' aggressive mobile strategy. Back in January, it was the first U.S. retailer to trial 2-D barcodes, an effort that didn't deliver the hoped-for results but was still a good learning experience, Acharya said. "Our key learning: customers were not fully caught up with that yet."

Part of the problem—beyond consumers having trouble positioning the barcode properly enough for the application to function—was that the software had to be downloaded to each phone by the consumer. With some efforts to have phones shipped with barcode scanning software—Acharya said Scanbuy has a deal with Samsung in the works to ship Samsung phones with the 2-D barcode apps preloaded—he's hopeful for the future of 2-D barcodes. He also describes 2-D alternative near-field communication (NFC) as being of strong interest. "NFC is one of the key things for later next year," Acharya said.

The Sears mobile team is also exploring geo-based applications ("but there's always the privacy issues") as well as digital coupons. With digital coupons, there are more hard choices. Those coupons can be scanned right off of the screen, a move that is easier for associates but can be difficult given the restraints of the glass on some phone models. The associate keying in the numbers after looking at the phone is a less fancy, less efficient, but more reliable method.