February 18th, 2013 | 4 MIN READ

Fuzzy Channels: Is Mobile Commerce Just Another Screen?

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

What is mobile commerce, really? On this blog, we apply the term broadly to any activity that supports customer acquisition, engagement with your products and completed transactions through mobile devices. But should we view mobile as its own channel, just another screen for ecommerce, or a bit of both?

eCommerce, mCommerce or just Commerce?

For many e-businesses, mobile commerce is simply the online channel repackaged for mobile devices (whether through responsive design, web app or native app) rather than a distinct shopping experience. Though not always carbon copies of an ecommerce website, transactional mobile sites and apps tend to support the same functions like menu browse, search, product detail pages, add to cart and checkout. They may do some groovy things with shake, photo or GPS, but ultimately direct the customer through the same conversion funnel as the web, and plug into the same systems. Changing channels? Others have found ways to use mobile to acquire sales in a way that retail or online can't do on their own. Amazon's mobile app's photo recognition and barcode scanning capabilities enable the pure play to take advantage of "showrooming," creating a type of virtual offline channel. eBay and Net-a-Porter have experimented with apps specifically created for physical "shopping wall" and pop-up shop events. For these businesses, such mobile shopping experiences are independent of the core online channel. But again, to complete a transaction, typically the user is connected back into the core ecommerce system. When a business model is built around mobile, rather than simply extended to it from the Web, mobile is more like a channel. A magazine publisher that sells an iPad edition, for example, uses the iPad as a new channel to deliver its content. In this case, it doesn't use its own ecommerce system, rather plugs into the App Store environment. The mobile channel is delivered and monetized independently of online or print. The customer pays with her iTunes account, and revenue is paid out to the publisher by the Big Apple -- after a 30% bite. (Of course, the publisher could go direct with an HTML5 app, but the channel is still mobile). A futuristic, non-mobile example could be a virtual Tesco storeaccessed through an IPTV with Xbox Kinect, with payment made through an Xbox Live account or billed to cable operator. Product discovery, personalization and navigation is radically different from the online storefront, the user is not sent through a conventional checkout flow to complete purchase, and the underlying systems are radically different. Mobile is just a screen when used to access your website or (though this is gray territory) a native app that replicates the online catalog. It's a channel when the shopping experience is built specifically for mobile, or the business model is mobile-centric.

Mobile majority?

You may be pondering whether we are ultimately going to end up with a "mobile majority" at the expense of traditional ecommerce. There are currently more mobile devices in the US than humans, and they're outselling PCs. Many are warning of the death of PCs and a complete mobile takeover. But we haven't seen the end of device innovation. Tablets and smartphones suffer from small screen syndrome, leaving room for larger screened, not-as-mobile connected devices like IPTV, desktop/laptop (though they are likely to morph their forms) and table computers (sorry, I couldn't resist). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZrr7AZ9nCY The pace of innovation in consumer electronics is so rapid, before "mobile commerce" has a chance to mature, it could already be supplanted by something yet to be invented, like interface-less wearable tech. Ecommerce will survive so long as these devices are used to access web pages through browsers, with universal URLs that can render on any screen. Unique experiences could be built around each device, making them "channels," but I predict there will be a need for web pages as we know them today, with universal URLs that can be accessed from any device, for at least the next five years. Unless someone invents a better way to search n' surf, this is it, baby. What will be really interesting is to watch which nimble and disruptive companies' business models spring up and bypass the ecommerce channel directly, exploiting efficiencies or innovations of new device environments that could squeeze out existing businesses -- similar to how Amazon, Netflix and iTunes have disrupted entire industries. You better believe we'll blog it as it happens. Off topic: Elastic Path is excited to join Singly and Layer7 Technologies in presenting APIs and IPAs, a meetup in Vancouver's historic Gastown February 21, 2013. If you're in the area, please join us! More info here.

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