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Mobile commerce has grown in popularity among consumers over the past ten years as phones have morphed into handheld computers and network connectivity has blossomed into a rich web of broadband services over wifi and 4G.

According to the latest figures from eMarketeer, some 6% of all retail spend worldwide is now made on a mobile device and mobile accounts for anywhere between 40% and 70% of ecommerce spend, depending on which geographic market you look at.

Here in the UK, Black Friday saw some 60% of ecommerce sales come from mobile, with spikes in the 70s at certain times of day – largely when people were commuting to and from work.

But what is mobile and what does this mobile commerce revolution mean to retailers, brands and etailers using marketplaces and the web to sell?

What is mobile commerce?

Mobile commerce used to be defined as using a mobile phone to buy things. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, m-commerce revolved purely around selling ringtones and wallpapers – and some other digital downloads that were consumed on the phone – to the phone and charging for them on the mobile phone bill.

This carrier billing model was rife with problems – not least kids downloading and charging for things on their parents’ phone bill that were repeat charges each week, like Crazy Frog – and for many years ‘m-commerce’ was seen as a dirty business.

Similarly, at the same time the growth of wifi saw more people using their computers out of home and away from the desk

But in 2007 along came the iPhone and revolutionised what mobile fundamentally was. Now it was more a matter of using a different device and operating systems to a standard PC or laptop connected to a different network that defined mobile commerce.

As more smartphones joined the fray, the differentiator became screen size, processing power and operating system.

Today, however, ‘mobile’ covers a plethora of device types: smartphones, tablets, phablets, smart watches, intelligent assistants, Amazon buttons and even smart TVs – it may yet also come to cover web-enabled household appliances and more as the Internet of Things (IoT) comes to life.

But for now, mobile commerce to most retailers centres on catering to smartphones, tablets, smart watches and intelligent assistants, as these tend to use the same basic operating systems and networks as each other.

What is ‘Mobile’ today?

Mobile, as said, is really a combination of device type, operating system and network connectivity, taken together acting as a slightly different way of accessing the web. So what do we actually mean today by ‘mobile’?

Form factors

For starters, mobile devices are usually quite small with a small screen and, crucially, smaller memories and smaller amounts of RAM memory (the kind of memory needed to run ‘jobs’ in the device). Understanding that the screen size is small and that it can be both landscape and portrait, depending on how the device is held, is crucial when looking at how to mobilise your online offering.


Mobile devices also come in a variety of forms. Typically these can be classed as:

  • Smartphones and their slightly larger siblings the Phablet – part phone-part-tablet (think iPhone 6 Plus) – are essentially the key market for ‘mobile’ when thinking about m-commerce. They have the largest penetration and are used increasingly by consumers for shopping. And their use and penetration is growing.
  • Tablets are often thought of as large smartphones, but in many ways they sit in a niche of their own: often being used in the home rather than in the street and having no connection to a phone network. They are also generally not used for voice calls, though they are often a Skyping tool. The penetration of tablets is not rising at the rate of smartphones and tablet-based m-commerce is growing only slowly. However, they can’t be discounted when designing and implementing your mobile strategy – as you shall see.
  • Tablet-PC hybrids are essentially PCs, relying largely on standard PC OS and incorporating just some of the idioms of a tablet such as touchscreens and some portability. They are typically thought of from an m-commerce point of view as being PCs, however, since the screen is removable (making it a tablet), then many of the other factors considered in designing for mobile – such as portability, location and so on – do come into play.
  • Watches and wearables – such as Fitbit and more – offer an intriguing insight into where mobile and mobile commerce may go in the years ahead but they aren’t there yet. That said, they tend to be tethered to a mobile device and so are merely, for now, alert devices for the main mobile device. However, we are already seeing consumers starting to pay for things with Apple Pay on an Apple Watch so there is a role for them in retail. One to, if you pardon the pun, ‘watch’.
  • Games consoles are intriguing. Many of them come with wifi and are connected to the web. Many of the are also starting to get their own app eco-systems and many of them are the way that some people connect to the web via their TV. Are they ‘mobile’? Not strictly speaking, but they are a different OS than PCs (and iOS and Android for that matter) but they can be used to shop for things. And so they are worth considering at some point in your mobilisation plan. You need to look at where your traffic is coming from and assess whether games consoles are significant.
  • Smart TV is a natural extension of games consoles: again they are not strictly speaking mobile, but they are different again in terms of form factor, OS and interaction method (see below). And they too are starting to get their own app ecosystems and, with the advent of Amazon Fire, Amazon Prime, Google Chromecast and Apple TV, are starting to work at the crossroads of mobile, PC and TV commerce. When looking at developing a mobile strategy it is worth looking at how that strategy can be tweaked or extended in the not too distant future to service smart TV shopping too.

Interaction method

The other area, which we have touched on above, where mobile is a distinctly different to traditional PC based m-commerce is the touch screen interface. PCs use a keyboard and a mouse; mobile tends to let you prod, poke, swipe and scrunch to control what you do. And this has a profound impact on how you design or adapt your online presence for mobile.

Networks and location

The other areas that single out mobile as being distinct from the e-commerce world of the PC is that the devices are often connected to the world through a variety of different networks and they move about so are being accessed in different places.

Networks that mobile devices typically use range across wifi, 2G, 3G and 4G, each giving a different level of performance and down (and up) load speeds – all of which have to be taken into account when designing for mobile.

Location, meanwhile, is a direct result of the networks listed above. Wifi is often used in more static endeavours – such as at home, the office, a coffee shop, on a train, at the airport or even increasingly on planes and trains – while 2G, 3G and 4G are typically mobile operator networks to be found when out and about. All these networks and the fact that the device is being used in many different places – often for different things and at different stages of the shopping journey – is one of the key things to think about when designing for mobile, as we shall see.

How do you ‘Go Mobile’?

With so many shoppers looking to buy online using a phone – or watch or other device type – how can you tap into being mobile? For anyone selling on a marketplace, the marketplace does that for you: they have invested in the tech to mobilise the marketplace, ergo you are now mobile…

However, in the interests of being thorough, here are the different ways to mobilise a retail – or any other – website.

  • Apps

    Apps (short for Applications) are what most people immediately think of when you specifically talk about m-commerce. Many retail brands have one and it has, for many been their first port of call when starting on their mobile strategy.

    Apps are small software programmes that live ‘natively’ on the device and when activated load up a set of tools and services that can exploit all that the phone has to offer. Back in the day when iPhone and apps were new, these apps contained all the data and information they needed to run natively. These days they tend to be more of a shop window that is driven at the back by the internet.

    That said, now that phone memory is pretty limitless – or at least well into the high gigabyte range – apps are becoming more important and useful again as they can be bigger and better programs that can deliver a really immersive experience. And the better the experience the more loyal users become – and the more loyal they are the more they spend.

  • M-web

    Mobile web is essentially the other way of delivering content to a mobile device and uses the same principles as the ‘normal’ web. Back in the early days of mobile, there was no such thing as the mobile web (m-web) and slowly developers and companies started to realise that websites looked awful on phone screens. Typically, businesses then created a cut down version of their website tailored to the low bandwidth, low processor power and small screen of the phone.

    As phones have improved these .mob sites have slowly been abandoned it favour of first of all ‘web scraping’ – where the key elements of the main website were used to repopulate a mobile website – and increasingly these days websites are just built on platforms that are adaptive and responsive to the device downloading them.

  • Apps verses m-web

    Despite what the media may have you believe, there is no either or about apps and m-web: they deliver very different things and, in an ideal world where money was no object, you would have both. However, with money tight you need to look at which would best suit your business.

    One rule of thumb is to look at what kind of users you are getting coming to you via mobile. If they are repeat buyers and loyal customers and actually want to buy from you as well as engage with you, then an app may well be a good first port of call.

    If they are just random traffic coming to you from the web and often browse and occasionally buy then you may be better off looking at mobile optimising your existing website as the first stage of a mobile strategy. Google will find you either way.

Marketplace and Mobile

Marketplaces already have invested heavily in being mobile, as they are seeing increasing numbers of their customers come through mobile like every other retailer. This, in many ways, helps you as it has done the hard work for you, but you have to remember that all the same rules apply to your marketplace presence as would to your own mobile presence.

Some things to consider include:


Text loads quickly, but is it really a great way to communicate with someone who is looking at your site on a tiny screen, perhaps outside in the street? Think about what you want to say and say it clearly and succinctly.

  • Good short headlines – be witty and engaging rather than lengthy and detailed
  • Punchy, clear text – be pithy and to the point
  • Less is more – keep descriptions to the basic minimum – but offer ways to click through to see more if the reader really wants to see more.


Images are a much more engaging way to sell your products and work a lot better on mobile devices. However, there are some simple rules to follow about using pictures so that they are mobile friendly:

  • Good quality, but low res – yes beautiful, high res photos look lovely, but even retina iPad screens aren’t that good and no one wants to wait minutes to download and image (nor do they want to use up their data allowance). So, keep images clear, but low res. Make them small – around a couple of hundred pixels in width and around 150 dpi usually works well. However, play about because you don’t want to degrade what your website looks like on PC.
  • Use lots of them –a picture paints a thousand words so use lots of them rather than text.


Video is increasingly key to an engaging and rich experience for users. However, this can be challenging for mobile versions of sites. So, embed video links from somewhere else – let YouTube or Vimeo do the hosting. They will also detect what device is trying to view the video through your site links and will adapt it accordingly.

But don’t rely on video. The trouble with mobile is that the networks aren’t consistently good, so you may have someone on your site using slow, old fashioned GPRS or Edge and, for them, video is going to be a no-no. So by all means use video content, but don’t make it the key thing that sells your site.

Oh and in case you don’t know: don’t use Flash – Apple and newer Android devices can’t read it, so Flash videos won’t play.

Mobile Marketing

Pretty much everyone has a mobile phone and it is a very personal device. For marketers this offers the opportunity to use it to try and build a deep, personal relationship between shopper and brand.

From a marketers point of view it is nirvana: the mobile allows them to know where a customer is, what they are doing, as well as using all the other digital data people throw off, such as purchase history and more.

The trick is how to use all this without creeping them out – or indeed breaking the law: the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) are coming into force across Europe in May 2018 and will make it very clear what a retailer or brand can and cannot do with all this data.

Putting that to one side, what can mobile marketing help you do?

  • Personalisation

    The key thing that mobile delivers is personalisation. The mobile device is a very personal piece of equipment, living as it does in the users pocket or bag and is often the last thing they look at before going to sleep and the first thing they reach for in the morning (even if using it just as an alarm clock). This means that mobile is the obvious tool for personalised marketing.

    But this is a double-edged sword. To make your marketing on mobile personal and effective you have to know an awful lot about the customer and target them very carefully with offers and other messaging that they might actually want. Get it wrong and they will be really annoyed and perhaps refuse to deal with you.

    So understand them and use the mobile channel for marketing very carefully.

  • Email marketing

    One of the key channels for marketing on mobile is email. Email on the desktop has, for many years, had a whiff of spam about it. On mobile things are a bit different. The personal and ‘always-on’ nature of mobile sees more people opening emails on their device, regardless of sender. This improved open rate means that you have a better chance of being seen by your prospects.

    However, it’s a crowded market out there and consumers are going to be bombarded with emails from many retailers that they deal with. You have to stand out and the best way to do that on mobile is to be super-relevant. Forget whizzy graphics and snappy tag lines (important though these are), if your email isn’t seen as useful and timely then it will be discarded and your brand damaged.

  • Text

    The other area where mobile offers an unrivalled way into the consumers psyche is through text (SMS). We all use text everyday – in fact billions of messages are sent every day over SMS – and it’s a very immediate way of contacting people. Because of this it has unrivalled access into the consumer and can be used as a marketing channel.

    It also has an extremely high open rate: pretty much 90% of SMSs are opened and read – no matter who they come from. Get it right and it is an awesome contact and engagement channel.

    But there are limits: you only have 160 characters to play with for starters, so messages can only be short and sweet. Again the personalised nature of text can play against you. Text, even more than email, is considered very personal and so you have to tread even more carefully here. For these reasons text is often used more as a customer care tool.

  • OTT messaging

    Over the top (OTT) messaging – messages that are sent ‘over the top’ of the mobile network but not actually charged for outside of the users data package – are increasingly being used to engage consumers and are potentially a great channel for mobile marketing. The biggest one is WhatsApp, but Facebook Messenger is coming up fast, even though WhatsApp is also owned by Facebook. The same rules apply to OTT as to email and text: they are hyper personal and rely on having a relationship with the consumer to work. But get it right and it could be a brilliant way to market to your prospects and existing customers.

  • Adverts

    Advertising on mobile is becoming increasingly common especially in games and other free content, where the user has to watch adverts in order to play for free. Many apps also feature banner and pop up ads in return for free use of the app. There are also, of course, all the other online advertising offerings thrown up by Google et al where you can get your message across.

    The thing to ponder with mobile advertising is that, like all visual ads, you aren’t guaranteed viewers will actually watch and take note and click through rates are low.

  • Push messages

    If you are lucky enough to have an app you can also contact your customers who are using it by pushing mobile marketing messages to them through the app. This can give you a very good click through rate as your app user is already pretty engaged with you.

    The downside is that it is best used for things that will appeal to existing users such as loyalty related offerings, as they are already on board with your app, but it does give you a nice personal way to interact with your loyal customers.

    Mobile Payments

    The final area where mobile is causing a ruckus is in payments. This means two very different things however: carrying out ecommerce payments on the phone and using the phone to make (and indeed take) payments.

    Mobile ecommerce payments

    Doing ecommerce on a mobile phone – through a mobile optimised website or an app – involves taking payment in much the same way as it does online and most payment gateways and marketplaces these days will offer the necessary functionality to make this happen.

    What you have to consider, however, is that people may be reluctant to type in all their card details with a keyboard on a PC but will do it; on mobile it involves a tiny keyboard and sometimes flaky connections and most people don’t want to. In fact, this is one of the biggest barriers to conversion on mobile.

    The answer lies in getting them to pre-register with you so that they can check-out in one or two clicks. The other answer lies in utilising Apple’s iOS ability add payment cards securely to its keychain, so that it lets you easily populate any payments forms that need filling in.

    The other way to tackle this is to add payment service providers such as PayPal, Apple Pay, Android Pay et al to your checkout so that the shopper can use these to check out easily.

    The phone as payment tool

    Increasing numbers of shoppers are turning to their phone as a place to store their payment details and, as many phones start to offer the same contactless capabilities as contactless cards, people are starting to use them. This means that as a merchant, you should be prepared to handle mobile payments – not contactlessly if you are online, though that is the ultimate in contactless I guess, but be able to handle the fact that the phone is making the payment.


    So that is a whistle-stop guide to what we mean by mobile and mobile commerce and some hints as to how to tap into mobile. Designing for mobile has changed the art of web design; no longer do we have the ‘above and below the fold dilemma’, replaced instead by the idea of the ‘infinite scroll’.

    However, having good images that load quickly and text that is easy to read on a smaller screen is essential.

    Increasingly, mobile is also taking into account devices such as intelligent assistants – such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa – which changes the game again. These devices have mobile operating systems (they are based on Android), but are voice activated. This changes how your content becomes searchable and how you deliver it. But that is all covered here.

    Increasingly, shoppers are not going to distinguish in their minds what device or channel they are shopping in and so mobile will become part of the wider Omni-Channel retailing idea, with shoppers starting on one device, finishing on another having been into a store in between.

    This adds a whole other level of complexity, but that is for another day.


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