Mobile Shopping

Are you out and about, reading this post on a smartphone?

If so, you are part of a growing number of consumers – one in four in the United Kingdom – whom businesses can no longer afford to ignore. However, playing the mobile marketing game carries some risks – other retailers are now in the position to whisk your customers away with a single push-notification, writes Gareth Harmer.

Gareth is a passionate early-adopter of all things techie and cool who designs products for a British mobile telecommunications company. For more of his musings on how businesses and media outlets could be using the real-time web to greater advantage, check out his geekblog.

If you are a business-person who is real-time-web-savvy enough to be reading Media140, chances are you have your social media strategy pretty well sorted, with staples like Twitter and Facebook and perhaps even a corporate blog as well.

Good for you!

However, there is a whole other audience who may be slipping silently out of your reach, should they simply leave the chair in front of their home or work computer.

A December 2009 study by mobile telecoms trade organisation the GSMA showed that some 16 million people in the United Kingdom – around a quarter of its entire population – used their mobile phone to go online that month. The most popular site was Facebook, which currently boasts 100 million mobile users worldwide. Facebook’s own statistics confirm that mobile users of the site are twice as active as their desk-bound friends.

This means that if you are a UK business using social media to reach clients, be they current or potential ones, you should bear in mind that around 25 per cent of them may well be on the go. Whether you are tweeting links to your corporate blog or promoting new products on your Facebook fan page, you would be well advised to make sure that your content is mobile-friendly. Unsurprisingly, online gadget and technology gurus Mashable are already on top of this, with their smart new, smartphone pages. Their website automatically detects any web-enabled phones trying to access it and then rearranges its layout to fit the smaller screen.

The many tentacles of mobile access already reach much farther than this. New smartphones present a range of opportunities for businesses looking both to entice new customers and to reward loyal ones. As eMarketer reported recently, mobile coupons – which are messages sent to customers offering a discount – are beginning to boom and show no signs of stopping.

British department store Debenhams offers free coffee to anyone visiting its Oxford Street centre via popular location service Foursquare. The most frequent visitor over a 30-day period is crowned ‘mayor’ of the Oxford Street Debenhams and rewarded with a free coffee. Other users who are in-the-know thanks to their mobile devices can grab a free coffee every Friday … and, of course, browse Debenhams’ other wares as they do so.

Mobile incentives like these have instant, and often pleasing, results for business, but they are not without risks. Digital marketing portal iMedia Connection has noted that over-reliance on coupons can have the effect of ‘training’ customers to buy your products solely when there is a discount available. By eliminating the process of cutting or printing out coupons, the effort level required in order to get a discount drops dramatically. All that may be needed is a quick flash of your mobile phone to a cashier. Fears have been raised that short-term incentives may come to replace long-term brand loyalty.

On the dark side, competing businesses can just as easily use mobile web marketing to ‘poach’ customers.

The Amazon Remembers service encourages browsing shoppers to photograph any product that attracts their interest, thus enabling them to receive notifications about similar products available online – possibly at a lower price. The RedLaser iPhone app scans any barcode and lists its matches on a Google product search, potentially with the same results.

Helping to shoo your once loyal customers right out the door are augmented reality applications, which superimpose data about the surroundings onto images of them. Within minutes, a shopper can find an item, read a review, locate it for cheaper, then about-face and march to where their phone tells them they can find it.

Of course, these services are a windfall to consumers, who glean a wealth of information and use it to preserve their hard-earned savings.

Recent statistics show that there is a large and potentially profitable mobile audience out there, but businesses may question whether it is worth the risk to interact with the latter. Approached carefully, there is no reason why not. Mobile technology provides a fluid way to introduce people to your products. Good quality service across all channels will undoubtedly help retain them.

As for competitors using mobile services to poach buyers, any business person who has been trading on the free market will already be well accustomed to this game. It is the responsibility of enterprises, and the entrepreneurs behind them, to make it as difficult as possible for competitors to tempt customers away, no matter what the medium.