The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

What Does the iPhone Mean for Online Shopping?

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Originally run September 9, 2007

Just as retailers are starting to get their arms around what it means to operate both an online and a store channel, technology comes along and changes the game: smart phones. While smart phone penetration is still relatively small, there is no doubt that the mobile web adds yet another channel for the retailer to consider in the portfolio. While the mobile phone may never be as stand-alone as the other two channels – mobile’s biggest opportunity for retailers is to serve as the connecting point between the online world and the physical world – it is as much a disruptor as online commerce was to traditional store retailing.

The question is, will it ever get its chance to disrupt? Apple’s iPhone may change the game before we ever start to play it. Disclaimer here: my husband is a huge fan of Apple, and we own several Apple products, from computers to iPods, and now yes, he has purchased an iPhone. And he purchased it early enough that he gets the $100 store credit, not the $200 refund thanks to Apple’s price cut.

The iPhone uses Safari, Apple’s web browser, and with the touch screen technology and the zoom features on the browser, surfing the full-on “Web ” is not only possible, it’s pretty easy. A little hard on the eyes, maybe, until you get the hang of the zoom in and out. I tested out the possibilities by shopping for a rain jacket. Here’s how it went.

I started out on Google, and typed in “Womens rain jacket ” – because I was lazy and didn’t want to add the apostrophe to “women’s “. It returned a list of results, and I clicked on the first one – NexTab, a shopping search site. I filtered on price, and then browsed through about 5 pages of results. When I found a jacket I liked, I opened it in a new window – yes, entirely possible on the iPhone, and very helpful from a shopping perspective. Almost like using tabs.

Once I settled on the jacket I wanted – from – I added it to my shopping cart, and purchased it. Entering all of my shipment details and credit card information was pretty easy – the touch keyboard is pretty good at fat-fingering all that stuff in. I ran into a little trouble at the last step, because the site used buttons that weren’t showing up in the iPhone browser. I managed to muddle through it by guessing where in the white space the button was, and it worked. I had purchased myself a women’s rain jacket using only the iPhone.

It took me about 20 minutes total, probably not much more time than I would have spent on a computer. Half the time I was on the AT&T network, and half the time I was on my home wireless network. It was definitely faster at home. The only big downside: my intensive use used up almost a quarter of the battery. It was a little less than half-charged when I started, and when I was through, I got a low battery warning.

So here’s my take on what the iPhone means to online commerce:

  • Make sure your website is optimized for Safari. There aren’t that many users yet, but particularly if you share a demographic with iPhone buyers, you may risk alienating some of your better customers if you don’t. Besides, how much incremental effort is that really, and for accessibility’s sake, don’t you want to be doing that anyway?
  • Whether iPhone achieves its desired market penetration or not, there are going to be copycats. Apple’s method of mobile browsing is far superior to my Blackberry, and I can easily foresee a time when it is the standard method of mobile browsing. Which means you may need to rethink your mobile strategy, assuming you’re working on one right now.
  • That said, there’s still a place for mobile-specific sites. Mobile’s real value is in bridging the online world with the physical world – and there are specific use-cases for that which you’ll never put on the homepage of your eCommerce site. Why should I have to walk all the way over to a store kiosk to find out if the item I’m looking for (which happens to be out of stock) is available somewhere else? Here’s my ideal use of mobile phones as part of the shopping experience: I’m standing in Target, looking for the ever-elusive size 11 boys’ shoes, which my store never seems to have, and instead of throwing up my hands and planning on how to shift the rest of my day around to go someplace else to buy shoes for my son, I whip out my cell phone, go to Target’s mobile site, click on “Product Availability “, and enter the SKU, the size, and my zip code, and get back in moments that I can either go to the other Target store that’s close to me, or I can have it shipped from the website to my house – all I have to do is log into my account and click to order.

I got my coat on Friday. And guess what? It’s too small, and it bunches up funny in the wrong places. So I have to return it. Alas, the iPhone doesn’t fix any of the basic pitfalls of clothes shopping online. Better get on that, Apple!



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