May 24, 2024

Retailers Retool Sites to Ease Mobile Shopping

Even as phones get more versatile and sophisticated, many retailers’ mobile sites and apps make it difficult to shop. It can be hard to examine items on a small screen, and the pages are often slow to load. Perhaps most frustrating, the process of entering information on a mobile keyboard requires either surgical precision or very tiny fingers.

As a result, retailers report that only about 2 percent of their sales are coming from mobile devices, a number well below the expectations of many e-commerce analysts.

“Everyone was so excited last year, but then sales through mobile haven’t been growing as rapidly as we would have thought,” said Sucharita Mulpuru of Forrester Research, which tracks the technology industry. “Many retailers haven’t even optimized their sites for mobile, and who wants to spend their time pinching screens and mistyping links?”

The potential for added revenue from mobile sales remains huge, retailers believe. EBay said that in 2010 it generated almost $2 billion in mobile sales, and is on track to double that this year.

But major retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond, Coach, Dillard’s and Ann Taylor still do not have sites designed specifically for mobile phones — known as optimized sites — nor do they have apps. By mid-2010, according to the Acquity Group, just 12 percent of the top 500 United States online retailers had sites compatible with mobile browsers, while just 7 percent had apps.

Now retailers are rapidly realizing they no longer have a choice, because customers expect to be able to shop on their phones and want the experience to be as good or better than on a computer. That is what 85 percent of online shoppers told Tealeaf, a software company that monitors buyers’ online behavior. So e-commerce companies are racing to figure out the best way to accommodate tiny screens and big fingers so they don’t miss out on sales to people standing in the lunch line or riding the train.

And they have been missing out on sales. Shoppers told Tealeaf that mobile shopping was more frustrating than sitting in traffic or visiting the D.M.V., which helps explain why, despite all the interest, people are not yet spending much when shopping on their phones. ComScore, a Web analytics firm, estimates that shoppers spent $1.1 billion via their phones in the last three months of 2010, a sharp increase over the course of the year, but still just 2.6 percent of total e-commerce sales for that period.

Bailey Vincent Clark, a 24-year-old writer and mother in Staunton, Va., shops on her phone for convenience, regularly buying Bare Escentuals makeup on Sephora’s optimized mobile site because she can do it from anywhere, and quickly.

Still, she said, “shopping on my phone can be extremely frustrating, because most Web sites aren’t streamlined for cell usage, leaving me squinting and pinching at the screen, struggling to enter information.”

The tepid response to mobile shopping has retailers pursuing a variety of improvements to compensate for a phone’s limitations, with things like voice search, one-touch checkout and simplified mobile sites.

Alibris, the book seller, had held off introducing a mobile site until late last year, when it decided mobile visits to its regular Web site were rising so much that it had no choice.

“When you transform a giant PC screen onto a little device, you have to decide what not to bring along,” said Jeanie Bunker, general manager of Alibris Retail. “So we basically stripped out all the things we thought were not relevant to the mobile user.”

For instance, it removed the rare-books tab, assuming that someone spending hundreds on a book would want to do extensive research. And since students looking for used textbooks were typing in ISBN numbers as they stood in college bookstores, Alibris included an ISBN search box on the mobile home page.

Many retailers point to Amazon’s apps as worthy models. Unlike most retailers, Amazon started developing mobile Web sites in 2006, before the first iPhone was available. To minimize typing, Amazon offers bar code scanning, voice search and automatic fill-in on typed searches. Type “Har,” for instance, and it displays Harry Potter books.

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