Eddie Bauer: With Mobile, Less Really Is More

In recent months, the retail mobile mantra seems to have been that more is better. Whether that's small chains pushing functionality as far as they can or chains trying to get involved in as many trials as they can. Jamba Juice, for example, is citrusing it up with mobile efforts with PayPal, Google Wallet and ISIS.

But 337-store apparel chain Eddie Bauer is going against the trend, deliberately opting for a minimalistic approach. No Wi-Fi in its stores, no in-store product location, no geolocation to locate stores and no mobile app at all. With a primarily female demographic aged 35–55, Eddie Bauer Digital Marketing Director Michael Saracino talks up his chain's new mobile site and said he is focusing on what he calls mobile's "practical features."

The mobile optimized site (for Android and iPhones/iPads only, with Apple devices representing about twice as much traffic as Androids) went live Tuesday (June 5).

A common approach today has been to be influenced by what rivals are doing and what could add nice functionality. The pitfall with doing the obvious and asking customers what they want is that, as Steve Jobs famously championed, customers often have no idea what they want until you show it to them finished and in context. That means, the argument goes, that retail execs must lead and make the decisions about what consumers will want two to three years from now.

But Eddie Bauer's Saracino said he couldn't see the need for many of today's more cutting-edge mobile techniques. "By creating a mobile optimized commerce Web site, we're able to meet something of a standard expectation, which is so pervasive at this time," he said.

The mobile optimized sites pretty much echo what the core Web site offers, which is basic E-Commerce. The chain's announcement included a handful of vanilla elements that most sites have had for many years: "Shoppers are able to check their order status, view their cart, save items to wish lists and find stores in their local area" using ZIP codes and addresses, not "current location. Other benefits include being able to read product descriptions and reviews, sign up for E-mails and learn about gear and apparel."

One line in the statement did seem a trifle baffling. Attributed to Adam Diamond, Eddie Bauer's Senior Vice President of Marketing, it said: "The convenience of on-the-go browsing and purchasing—whether they are rock climbing or relaxing in their backyard—is a great freedom for our adventurous customers." People in the middle of rock-climbing stop and start shopping on their iPhone? But I digress.

Saracino's argument is not that retailers should predict where customers want mobile retail to go as much as it is determining what is expected and meeting that need. But meet in such a way that enables easy addition of new capabilities as needs arise.

"You have to know where customers' expectations lie. What they're looking for out of a mobile experience," he said, adding that some further functionality—what he calls "practical features"—would be quite useful, such as better CRM/loyalty capabilities and some additional social media integration. Saracino said this is better, in his view, than "being a leader in mobile payments."

In making these decisions, Eddie Bauer had to deal with the mobile analytics struggle that is universally known and hated. Does it make sense to usage stats to justify—or not justify—a mobile investment? For example, Eddie Bauer's stats showed that the percent of site visitors coming from mobile devices was "in the single digits." Does that mean few people are interested in accessing the site via a mobile device? Or does it mean few are doing that explicitly because of the lack of a mobile optimized site?

It's sort of like deciding if certain stores need to hire more Spanish-speaking associates based on the number of Spanish-speaking customers in the store. It doesn't factor in the potentially huge number of Spanish-speaking customers who would have come in had there been associates who spoke Spanish. Given that there is no way to know precisely how many mobile shoppers would visit if they had the chance to do so, it's not a decision that can be made solely on current analytics.

Saracino did see proof, though, of the negative impacts of a lack of a mobile-friendly site. "We saw bad experiences that directly led to an increased bounce rate," he said.

As for the lack of Wi-Fi in his stores, Saracino said that he sees 4G and other over-the-air offerings making in-store Wi-Fi often unnecessary. It enables stores to completely bypass the hassles of Wi-Fi without depriving customers. "Mobile usage has become so much more prevalent that I don't know that hotspots are necessary to drive mobile anymore. I don't that there is a barrier now that did exist before," he said.