For more than a decade, mobile retail occupied a very narrow, highly profitable but insignificant niche involving small-ticket items like ringtones and wallpaper.
Unstructured and fragmented, the industry doddered around in extended infancy, suffering reputational challenges along the way due to the unscrupulous practices of some merchants who largely escaped accountability.
Hit by a tsunami of change
But with the rapid rise of mobile platforms such as the iPad and the success of the app store model this has changed irreversibly.
Just as the Internet shook the foundations of bricks-and-mortar retail, so mobile presents a tsunami of change. Once again, retailers are reconsidering how best to get in front of the tablet and smartphone generation.
What has changed?
The rise of the iPad and the app store model was massively influential in legitimising mobile retail and giving it formal structure. How did this happen?
· First, new addictive hardware formats (tablets, Kindle-like readers and a new generation of smartphones taking advantage of the app model) took the market and retailers’ interest away from Web-based online commerce and feature phones.
· The app model, in which content is verified and controlled centrally, brought respectability and trust to content distribution, driving downloads.
· Lastly, the capabilities of the new hardware took higher-value content mainstream.
How to get in front
What’s becoming apparent now is the need and opportunity for new apps and new user interface design tweaks.
New design considerations
Selling on mobile (hardware other than desktops and notebooks) brings with it a number of caveats – especially in the African context.
Firstly, mobile data is more expensive than fixed data, and secondly, screens are frequently smaller. For this reason, design bloat must be avoided as far as possible, and uncluttered, simple interface designs will always trump busy, bitty pages.
A mobile screen, manipulated by touch and not mouse clicks, is further subject to a number of new restrictions, such as size of active elements and the use of drag-and-drop.
A new design direction called adaptive design is becoming a requirement for small-screen tablets and smartphones, where the angle at which the device is held determines display orientation and, accordingly, the dynamic arrangement of page items.
Another area of consideration is the whole new vista of apps becoming possible as tablet and phone owners take their devices everywhere with them.
Offline retail companion apps are of particular interest. 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.
With Apple’s iOS 6 out later this year, Apple Passport will allow storage of electronic loyalty cards on the phone, taking this idea one step further. Near-field communications (NFC) in upcoming devices will add the final piece of the puzzle to close the identification-authentication-payment-loyalty loop.
While the mobile world brings many challenges to retailers, the opportunities inherent in the accompanying new content model far outweigh the hassle.
The return on investment of innovations such as NFC may be under scrutiny for a while in Africa, but not all apps require a high-LSM client base or anything fancier than a feature phone. Already there’s talk of bringing something similar to Shopkick into South Africa.
It’s time to roll with a whole new crowd.
Simon Bestbier, Account Director Realmdigital