Business in 2012: is it a case of go mobile or go home?

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eBusiness has gained traction, as companies are conducting more transactions, improving digital content and expanding the amount of services on offer online. But the industry has also diversified into the mobile marketplace.

For over a decade, mobile retail has been viewed as a niche market, with profitable but somewhat insignificant products such as ringtones and wallpapers. The industry was scattered and unstructured, facing several challenges (including a somewhat shaky reputation due to a number of unscrupulous merchants).

This changed rapidly when mobile platforms such as the iPad and with it, the highly-successful app store, gained popularity. Addictive new hardware formats and smart phones lured customers away from web-based online commerce and brought higher-value content to the mainstream. Retailers found themselves scrambling for a piece of the lucrative pie that tablets and smartphones unlocked — and then ran into a number of challenges, including issues with integration and design and the risky transition from eBusiness to mobile and social platforms (or running all three in parallel.)

Selling on mobile (hardware other than desktops and notebooks) is particularly challenging in Africa, where mobile data is more expensive than fixed data and small screens can lead to design bloat. In addition, a mobile screen is manipulated by touch and not mouse clicks, which can be further subject to a number of new restrictions, such as size of active elements and the use of drag-and-drop.

Truth be told — in many ways, it’s still business as usual, despite the fact that mobile will be a significant driver. After all, mCommerce is merely another form of eBusiness. Rather than rush to a mobile platform and abandon the traditional eCommerce model, companies should simply integrate their existing websites and tools with the new technology and devise a holistic digital strategy.

Small, practical innovations should be implemented, such as re-designing user interfaces to suit smaller screens and catering for a range of mobile platforms (including feature phones). An adaptive design can be used for tablets and smartphones where the angle at which the device is held determines display orientation and, accordingly, the dynamic arrangement of page items.

Social media is still at an immature stage of evolution, and should still be treated as a customer ramp-up opportunity for online and mobile platforms than an exclusive sales channel. It is fairly simple to integrate this into existing platforms.

Ultimately, of course, the real benefits lie in the opportunities presented by the bevy of apps that are being created. Shoppers browsing a retail store are free to either buy online on the same store’s website, or do comparative browsing online and shop elsewhere. In this scenario, mobile loyalty schemes are becoming a must. Coalition loyalty schemes like Shopkick offer rewards (‘kicks’) for merely walking into stores, with ‘kicks’ redeemable on any partner merchandise.

This will eventually drive even more consumers towards eCommerce, which will mean that the underlying systems’ load profiles must be redesigned. Micro-payments are changing the way people transact, and consumer-to-consumer payments will be next. Immediately, this requires re-architecting mobile commerce platforms; in time these changes will filter through to all ePlatforms. Soon we’ll see location-aware services, near-field communications and other innovations dominating the market.

All of this poses a problem: legacy systems weren’t built with this unique consumer behaviour or design considerations in mind. Building your own plug-ins are not ideal, and companies keen to enter the mobile playing field need to remain agile to remain relevant.

Your best chance of gaining traction and staying power is to pick niche apps that meet your requirements and to engage with an integration partner with the necessary experience and a successful track record in the strategic eBusiness, mobile and social fields.

mCommerce won’t replace eCommerce overnight, but it is too significant to ignore. Start planning for the future today — if you would like to have one.

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