Using Mobile To Drive Buyers In-Store? That's Not M-Commerce

Merged-channel retail is a tricky concept. Just because something mixes mobile and in-store doesn't mean it merges those two channels—or even uses both of them well. The Associated Press (yes, the newspaper wire service) this month announced it's testing a mobile-phone version of "preprint circulars," the advertising sections that are stuffed into Sunday newspapers.

The idea is for newspapers to include a rich-media advertising module, dubbed iCircular, in their mobile Web sites or apps, and for retailers to advertise using it to drive customers to brick-and-mortar stores rather than to the retailers' own mobile sites.

That probably sounds great to newspaper executives, who are losing advertising dollars to mobile and online. Maybe it will appeal to small local retailers if they're having trouble with the notion of selling through more than one channel. But for major retailers, that approach makes no sense—driving customers away from their mobile commerce sites is exactly the wrong direction.

An interesting idea is at the heart of iCircular: mixing traditional newspaper ways of delivering advertising (such as targeting ads to readers in specific Zip codes) with product search, online shopping lists and deals that can be shared with friends. That sounds a lot like advertising-meets-M-Commerce.

Unfortunately, it's not. It's still traditional advertising. It's telling would-be customers, "Don't buy right now from your phone. Go to the store instead."

What it should be telling customers is: "Yes, buy right now from your phone. Then go to the store and pick it up." That approach would nudge customers toward the brick-and-mortar store, but without delaying the sale and giving the customers a chance to change their minds.

But that's the type of mistake that's likely to happen when the AP, which was founded by a group of newspapers, thinks about mobile. Ironically, the newspapers that founded the AP grew fat and profitable over the past 100 years because of advertising from big retailers. They're shrunk over the last decade not just because retailers have moved their advertising online, but because retailers can actually sell online.

Mobile advertising isn't M-Commerce. Customers want to buy when and where it's most convenient for them—whichever channel is involved—not be driven from one channel to another. That's what merged-channel retailing is, and retailers can't afford to miss that point—even if the AP does.