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Is Smartphone Shopping Over-Hyped?

Posted on  16 February 11  by 

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Mobile MarketingDon’t get me wrong: I believe the smartphone revolution is coming.  At MLC, we’re looking into our members’ experiments in mobile and we’re hearing lots of great success stories (much more to come on that throughout the year).  And if you haven’t yet seen this fascinating Morgan Stanley presentation on changes in tech you should read it as soon as you’re done with my post. They predict sales of smartphones will exceed all PCs by mid-2012.  Meanwhile Nielsen says smartphones will be roughly 50% of all mobile phone sales in Q3 of this year.

Yet all this excitement about 2011 being the year of mobile smacks to me of a little too much hype.  Case in point: a recent article from Mobile Commerce Daily headlining statistics that the majority of smartphone users have purchased physical goods via mobile in the last six months – 62%, in fact.

We did our own survey, back in December/January, and learned a lot about the mobile consumer.  And while the majority of smartphone owners have shopped on their phone (68%), a much smaller percent actually bought something (20%). This was consistent in the US and Europe. Most of our respondents actually had the experience of switching channels to make a purchase.

This feels a lot more in-line with trends from 2010: surveys from last July showed only 16% of iphone owners shopping on their phones – and they were the largest segment of shoppers.  This survey in October of last year shows roughly a quarter of smartphone users shopping.  (Not to mention that the source of that Mobile Commerce survey sells mobile content management software.)

So what are the real facts about smartphone shopping?  Here are the top few from our recent survey:

  • Most smartphone shopping happens at home.  That’s as opposed to in line/waiting, at work, at other places.  Nearly 40% of shoppers shop at home, while only 15-20% shop while waiting in line or while at work.
  • Mobile shopping is (currently) a man’s world. Men are currently more likely to browse and buy items from a smartphone.  Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the big predictors of a smartphone user’s likelihood to browse and buy on the phone are things like gaming and overall app usage. It’s the most sophisticated users who are shopping on their phones.
  • Perceptions of value change on the small screen.  This is surprisingly good news – on a small phone, consumers pay more attention to words, given the small pictures.  You can find a lot more detail in this recent blog post, but the upshot is that copywriters are much more important in a mobile shopping world.
  • In-store scanning hasn’t yet hit the mainstream. We saw fewer than 50% of our survey scanning items in store (to do things like comparison shop).  Those who do scan do it only a few times a month.
  • Mobile shoppers are indifferent between apps and sites. A full 50% of our respondents said they had no preference between shopping through apps or websites. Roughly 30% had a preference for the site.

Overall, what we’re seeing is a big difference between mobile shopping’s potential and the reality. The potential is huge for mobile-optimized websites or apps that help you on-the-go, with context appropriate content and easy payment. Also likely is an increasingly sophisticated consumer who price-compares for the most important purchases through apps or scanning, and who appreciates and uses mobile coupons.

In my humble opinion, there are three things that need to change before we face that future:

  1. Android, iphone and Windows 7 phones are the majority of smartphones out there.  These phones have user interfaces meant for browsing and make it (slightly) easier to find and use apps. Blackberry users are still mostly using the calendar and email functions on their phones. (Given the recent news, I won’t even talk about Symbian)
  2. Customers get used to their new phone capabilities.  SMS is in the mainstream, but it will take a little longer for the average consumer to get comfortable with non-game apps, scanning and location-based features.  Until then, the biggest opportunity for brands is in SMS and mobile-optimized websites.  Speaking of which, the third change is.
  3. The majority of shopping sites and emails are mobile-optimized (without losing functionality). Too many new adopters of smartphones are getting discouraged by website pages that require microscopic fingers to click on the right text, or relationship-building emails that don’t fit on the screen because of all the graphics. Understandable that they wouldn’t even try entering a credit card in that scenario.

What are your predictions for when mobile marketing crosses the tipping point? Any important trends I’ve missed?  Let us know in the comments below.

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