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The mobile commerce prerogative for retailers in 2010

As retailers settle into their routine this year, one thing must change from 2009: mobile must no longer suffer benign neglect. At risk are dashed consumer expectations for consistent experience across store, catalog, online and mobile.

While retailers and marketers have suffered through a 2009 holiday of endless checklists, sage advice and told-you-so’s, now is the time to examine how the American consumer is changing in her shopping and buying habits, as well as in her receptivity and response to targeted marketing messages.

Of this retailers can be certain: the engagement with online marketing and ecommerce has increased, as evidenced by a strong showing over the holidays. What is also emerging as an undeniable truth is the role that mobile is coming to play in search and discovery, shopping and buying.

With more smartphones and data plans in consumer hands, retailers can bet their bottom dollar that the mobile Web, mobile applications and SMS text messaging will play a critical role in customer acquisition and retention across all channels, and not just mobile.

Mobile is still a blip for the vast majority of retailers. But that will soon change, if only because shoppers are now empowered in ways they never were.

Consider, for example, the role of mobile within the store. How easy is it for consumers to check the comparable merchandise’s price at another retailer online – all on the mobile phone, standing mid-aisle? How real is the danger of a store redirect? How obvious is it that mobile comparison-shopping will soon become second nature?

High five
The tasks ahead for retailers that are serious about mobile being an opportunity – and not a threat or an object of neglect – are five.

The first is simple: Does the retailer have a mobile-friendly Web site, mobile application or SMS program, or a combination of all three? These are the building blocks of a strong mobile presence.

Next is the frontend. Assuming that the retailer has a mobile site or application, is it user-friendly? Is the site or application designed to be intuitive? How many tabs? How easy is it to search merchandise on the mobile store? And how is the merchandising on the site – what gets priority on the homepage? Once clicked through, do the item pages allow zoom-ins of images?

Also, does the site fit most major smartphone screens – BlackBerry, Apple iPhone, Motorola Droid and Palm Pre, as well as Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson models? Is it scroll-down and not left-to-right?

That frontend is cosmetics to skin. Backend infrastructure is critical.

Does the site or application have an intuitive in-site search or on-application function? Are the searches as relevant as those on the retailer’s ecommerce site? How easy to use is the store locator? Common sense – are the ecommerce and mobile commerce engines linked?

Almost as important for the mobile commerce presence is the ability to shop is the ability to buy. Is that the case? Can the consumer simply enter email address and password – as required by many retailers for ecommerce sites – and start buying items off the mobile site or application? Can they use their credit or debit cards – as many expect to become the default transaction mechanism?

The fewer the hoops from shop, cart to click-to-buy, the better. Try Amazon’s mobile site to get an idea.

Most important: Is the site or application secure? Does verbiage on the site reassure the customer?

One more thing. Does the site or application have click-to-call ability to link directly to the retailer’s call center? It better be the case. Shoppers may prefer the comfort of talking to a customer service representative after the transaction is concluded on the mobile store. Expect this pattern in the salad days of mobile commerce and budget accordingly for extra call center expenses.

Fourth, has the retailer looked at SMS as its best mobile ally for loyalty-building? Every retailer worth its salt must have an opt-in SMS program for alerts, sales and discounts, store drivers and coupons. Link that SMS program to the overall loyalty program including store, catalog and online.

Finally, does the retailer have a strong mobile marketing program? This year may prove that leaving mobile advertising and marketing out of the media mix will come at some cost. Start buying banner ads on the mobile sites of major publishers. Better still, make cross-media purchases to include online and mobile banner ads.

Contrary to what skeptics may say, there is nothing like having banner-based ads next to trusted content. Renting real estate in a frequently visited neighborhood always pays off. Those 6×1 and 4×1 ads will work to reinforce branding and even encourage more active engagement.

Obviously there is a lot more to retailer engagement with mobile marketing and mobile commerce than what is suggested here. But this is the year to make sure that mobile moves up from a discussion to a dedicated line item in the budget. Retailers do not like surprises, be it weather or acts of terrorism. Don’t let the evolving shopper be a surprise.