This column was written by Evan Schuman, the editor of StorefrontBacktalk.com, a site that tracks retail technology, e-commerce and security issues. Retail Realities will appear each Friday. Evan can be reached at e-mail and on Twitter.
It began, arguably, with the iPhone two years ago and it hasn't let up: Consumer excitement about today's breed of Web-friendly smartphones is undeniable. So it's reasonable to expect that, by now, most major retailers would be running great mobile commerce sites designed to capitalize on this long-awaited blossoming of the Mobile Web. Reasonable, perhaps, but not real.
Instead, the U.S. M-Commerce space is floundering as retailers drag their feetdeploying purchase-capable mobile sites or find their mobile initiatives stalled by an avalanche of obstacles beyond the anticipated mountain of incompatible platforms and mobile browsers. The problems encountered are legion. They include a vacuum of standardization for everything from design, programming, payment processing and even URL naming to fears about carrier conflicts over the types of permitted content and a Catch-22 business strategy about how much, and when, they should embrace M-Commerce.
The definition of true M-Commerce varies wildly, so I'll offer our own: The ability for a consumer to make a purchase solely by using a mobile phone. Most existing mobile sites don't, and some - such as Walgreen's mobile site - allow actions but not transactions (in the sense of actually buying something). If the process requires the consumer to use a desktop/laptop for each purchase, it's not true M-Commerce. (Let's give a pass to chains that force the consumer to make a one-time Web visit to initially set up the account.) If the process merely sends text message promotions, that's not M-Commerce. Limiting the phone's purchases to items that must be picked up in a store doesn't count and when a retailer does buy-online-pickup-in store for products that Amazon could have easily shipped, that's not true M-Commerce.
With these hurdles, it's no surprise that a look around the mobile commerce world reveals a rather barren landscape, at least if the goal is to find major retailer sites with full functionality. There are a handful of major multi-channel retail chains that have true mobile commerce sites, including Sears/K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, CVS, Dell, Foot Locker, Ralph Lauren and Victoria's Secret. But most of the majors either have no mobile presence or it's mobile but not at all M-Commerce. Target is the quintessential example of such a chain.
Target allows mobile customers to search and browse its site, see product ratings, access a store locator and view general Target ads along with mobile-only ads. For iPhone users, it also offers a gift finder function. Almost everything it seems, except being able to actually buy anything.
Business issues aside, the underlying technical reason for all these problems is clearly the inherent differences between sites on phones and on desktops. That's certainly not a surprise to anyone, but there has been an expectation of standardization, an implicit belief that there would be general rules for how such sites would function.
To date, there has been no widespread acceptance of any such rules. "The mobile phone is fundamentally incompatible with the Web as we know it," said Stephen Slezak, marketing director at Digby, a company that creates M-Commerce sites. "Everything on the Web is designed to work with powerful processing and big screens. Some retailers spent millions optimizing for those screens and all is lost on a 2-inch or 4-inch screen and a device that can't run stuff like Ruby. There isn't even Flash on the iPhone."
Retailers should accept the fact that merely porting their existing E-Commerce sites to mobile devices is a dead-end idea. Most bells and whistles must be sacrificed. For example, Tom Emmons, the man in charge of mobile development at Sears Holdings, said there are significant content and functionality differences between Sears' main Web site and its Sears2Go mobile site. The mobile version has most, if not all, of the same products, but little of the design pizzazz. It's also not easy to determine which products are available for purchase from the mobile site until a consumer tries to make a purchase.
"Sears2Go versus Sears.com is like night versus freakin' day," Emmons said. "Mobile users are insanely utilitarian. They want to go in, look at something and get out." If Sears' experience is any indication, those mobile users also want to buy things. Emmons is fond of telling M-Commerce skeptics about the $3,000 lawn tractor purchased by one customer over a cell phone
But this is not necessarily a problem. Customers legitimately seek a very different-and much faster-experience on a mobile device. But streamlined and small is not something most E-Commerce development teams warm to easily. There are also challenges with the most difficult-and critical-part of any virtual shopping: paying for the purchase.
Smartphones have payment difficulties that Web sites don't have. A Web site that asks for customers to repeatedly type in payment card data and an address is annoying. A mobile site that tries the same thing will simply-and permanently-lose that customer.
And there are even more roadblocks for mobile commerce:
• Sites that don't automatically recognize when a user is coming in through a mobile device, sending them to the full-fledged site. Not all retailers with mobile sites even have a consistent way of notifying its visitors that a mobile site exists.
• Inability by many mobile browsers to handle the complex, processor-taxing technology that drives regular E-Commerce, such as Ajax, Flash and Java
• Difficulty crafting systems that can continually check for problems in the delivery of mobile pages when phone vendors update, upgrade or retire devices and browsers
• Mobile carrier backlash and content restrictions
• Glitches when presenting purchase pages due to improper device discovery and rendering
• Headaches in maintaining secure transaction frameworks for customers
• Uncertainties about controlling costs for outsourced technology and services
• Unforeseen issues when integrating into existing point of sale systems.
Some of these issues are major obstacles, but little things can also effectively mess up an M-Commerce site. It won't take long for impatient mobile users to give up if retail sites force them to scroll in various directions or otherwise search for tools, such as "Add to Cart" buttons. This is triply true if the site design doesn't indicate to the user that there is anything they need to search for.
The beauty of mobile commerce is the ability for a consumer to make a purchase anywhere he or she is. But until the retail world decides that M-Commerce is a priority, the strength of a cellular connection will be the least of its problems.
By Evan Schuman
Special to CBSNews.com