Mobile Apps Now Ringing The Retail Aisles

The last 10 days have seen an unusually large number of mobile retail efforts from major retailers and manufacturers, with new ventures from Starbucks, J.C. Penney, Wet Seal, Tommy Hilfiger, 1-800-Flowers, Ghirardelli, the Home Shopping Network and Moosejaw, among others.

Some of these efforts are being artificially fueled by applications launched specifically for Apple's iPhone, while other retailers are getting their mobile acts together in time for this year's holiday season.

J.C. Penny threw its hat in the ring by launching what it said was the first non-grocery system that can read 2D barcode coupons presented on mobile phones. The new imaging scanners were deployed at J.C. Penny store POS terminals in 16 Houston area stores.

Many retailers are focusing their efforts on apps for iPhones, a device that's quite likely the single most influential invention yet in terms of fostering Mobile-Commerce. The iPhone app launched on Wednesday (Sept. 30) by $593 million Wet Seal allows people who are shopping in any of its 500 clothing stores to type in the style number found on an item's price tag to launch a "virtual stylist" feature that presents thousands of coordinated outfit choices. The app enables customers to view, purchase and share "tens of thousands of outfits" created by Wet Seal customers and stored on the Wetseal.com social networking platform.

The iPhone app launched the same day by the $4 billion, 900-store Tommy Hilfiger chain also allows customers to shop for and buy clothing. But it also provides shopping carts that "will follow consumers, regardless if they start online or on their iPhone," said the launch announcement, which added, "If an item is out-of-stock, shoppers can sign up for push notifications directly to their iPhones."

Home Shopping Network (HSN) recently announced yet another iPhone app. Touted as "the E-Commerce industry's first live-video "3-screen experience," the app lets iPhone users view HSN television shows and buy products "from home or on the go." Users can shake their iPhones and the app will generate random product recommendations in addition to deals and promotions, HSN said.

The iPhone is important, but it's not the only smartphone making M-Commerce waves. 1-800-FLOWERS apparently figured there's money to be made catering to people who buy phones running Google's Android platform. The company recently launched an app that extends to Android its M-Commerce storefront and mobile gift store, features already available for the iPhone and RIM BlackBerry.

As we mentioned last week, there's disagreement among retailers about whether to outsource one of the trickier parts of M-Commerce: the payment process. This week, we look into the future of mobile payments, which is an even murkier area. One of the players in the outsourced mobile credit card payment field, Seattle-based startup Billing Revolution, announced on September 24 that it has partnered with credit card transaction processor Authorize.net. The deal will allow the more than 200,000 merchants using Authorize.net to offer Billing Revolution's "one click" mobile device payment service.

Andy Kleitsch, co-founder and CEO of Billing Revolution, said many retailers built their mobile sites mainly for browsing, "but the real 'ah-ha' moment comes when they realize that the check-out experience needs to be mobile-optimized, too."

Kleitsch said procrastination on the part of major retailers when it comes to M-Commerce is helping his company. "They should have had Mobile-Commerce initiatives fully mapped out and implemented two years ago," Kleitsch said. "What we have found is that merchants want to focus on their core competency--providing great products and services to their customers. Building a mobile checkout platform, although extremely important, is about the farthest thing that a merchant wants to figure out from scratch."

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