Today's Retail Mobile Commerce: The Smartphone Meets A Train Wreck

With consumers becoming sharply more interested in mobile commerce and handsets getting closer to the point where it's feasible (thanks, Apple. Between M-Commerce and the early GUI pre-Windows days, to paraphrase Han Solo, "that's two we owe you"), retailers are finally starting to deploy. But it does not look like they're taking it very seriously.

On the deployment side, about one in every 20 of the largest E-tail sites now support mobile, according to figures released by m-commerce consulting firm Acquity Group. But those rollouts reflect a lack of standardization (or even basic consistency) and suggest a community that is overwhelmed by the radically different environments (screen resolution, size, OS capabilities, etc.) offered by the major phones today in the U.S..

Adam Boysen, an Acquity project manager, for example, points to the fact that some sites try and automatically detect a mobile customer while others place the onus on the consumer to replace "www" with "m" if they want the mobile experience.

The existence of many different browsers (and browser versions), OSes (and OS versions), screens and CPUs is nothing new for E-Commerce executives who have been fighting those battles on the desktop for years. But that's the Catch-22 that bedevils m-commerce strategies. When a major retailer updates their site, it's tested on most—if not all—of the relevant platforms and browsers. If necessary, different versions of the site dedicated solely to one platform each will be created to guarantee that the site looks the way it's designed for almost all Web visitors.

But such resources simply do not exist for most retail M-Commerce launches, with many satisfied having one mobile version for all devices and OSes. That will change, of course, as the number of purchases on m-commerce increases, but that's where the Catch-22 kicks in. Retailers won't create robust mobile experiences until there are enough purchases being made on the phones, but that's likely to be dramatically slowed because today's experiences are not compelling enough to encourage a lot of purchasing.

Today's typical m-commerce site is fine for research—limited research—but completing purchases are not usually fun. (I'm still using a Palm so downgrade my purchase experience from "not fun" to "death, where is thy sting?")

Even sticking with the major smartphones doesn't eliminate the browser battle, Boysen said. "A lot of Blackberry users have opted to use Opera's browser," which creates a very different experience, he said. "The Safari browser on the iPhone is much more robust than the typical smartphone browser" and the large and crisp screen of the iPhone helps as well.

The original mobile deployments were little more than text-based stripped down versions of the retailer's main Web site. This is in stark contrast with desktop deployments, which tended to go too far with graphics and animation to create, as Boysen said, "dynamic interactions. But the mobile experience to date, they've gone in the opposite direction, trying to dumb it down as much as possible. They dumbed it down too much, in the sense that the retailer can't make a significant investment."

A few top-tier retailers—such as Wal-Mart and Sears—do a little bit more in terms of detecting various mobile phones, Boysen said. A popular capability, for example, is identifying the iPhone, which allows for a much more compelling experience.

When talking with Boysen for this column, we visited FootLocker's mobile site, which worked well, until I tried to purchase something. Seems that "certain elements are not WAP optimized," which meant it permitted no purchases from my smartphone.

There's little debate that mobile commerce is the future of retailing. But if retailers don't start testing and treating mobile just as it's done for the desktop, they're surrendering revenue to the few that will invest.