Friday, August 22, 2008

Marco, it's Polo on Your Mobile

Ralph Lauren, the trendy clothier, is moving beyond online shopping to mobile shopping. Not just shopping while on the go, but shopping on your mobile phone. When is all this going to happen? It's already happening.

Mobile or m-commerce is a technology about ready to take off the way e-commerce has done over the last decade. The keys to making it happen are Internet-enabled cell phones and special mobile web sites designed for those smaller screens. Other enhancements are barcode reading software and Internet enabled vending machines.

Why the big move to shopping on your cell phone? Retailers believe that it's something people will go for in a big way once they have the opportunity. Where do they get that idea? While you're stopped at a light sometime, take a peek at what the other drives are doing. I'll bet you find that anywhere from a quarter to a half of them are on the phone. People love being on their cell phones.

In addition to socializing, cell phones are useful for coordinating schedules, cross-checking shopping lists, updating appointment and similar chores while on the go. Nobody goes home to get on the phone anymore. They pull out their cellphone and they're connected.

So, one reason that m-commerce is likely to be the next big thing is that people are on the go more than ever and they always have their cellphones with them. This situation feeds into the notion that we should be able to get what we want when we want it. Wait for a catalog to come in the mail and then send order form? That's so 19th century. Drive to the store and spend all day browsing the various departments? That's so 20th century.

The e-commerce movement has conditioned us to use the personal computer as catalog and order form. The goods still come in the mail but the turnaround time is fast. Just about anybody selling anything has a website and those who don't can likely be found on eBay. But now that we're comfortable shopping online, there's one remaining problem. You still have to go home to get at your computer.

Some people take their computers with them. You can see them in the coffee shops logged-in to the free WiFi Internet service. But most people don't want to be weighed down by a few pounds of computer, although they don't mind always carrying a few ounces of cellphone.

So there it is. Combine the ease of e-commerce that people have grown accustomed to with the mobility of cell phones that have become almost a human appendage, and you have an impulse shopping dream machine. Got a few minutes? Pay some bills. Order a few new shirts. Arrange to have a pizza delivered as soon as you get home.

It's ordering those shirts that Ralph Lauren is concentrating on. Their mobile site at is already online. Yes, you can view it on your regular computer browser. Just narrow the window so it looks something like a cellphone screen and you can even shop there. After all, a mobile website is still a website.

What's more exciting is the plans that Ralph Lauren has for enhancing the technology. They're moving into the use of two dimensional barcodes, called QR (Quick Response) codes, that you scan using your cell phone. Scan? Yes, with the proper software your cellphone camera becomes a barcode reader. It will translate the odd pattern of black and white squares into an Internet link that will take you to a specific offer on the Ralph Lauren site. You can download a reader at the site now. See a billboard, banner or print ad with a RL QR code? Point your phone at it and snap a pix. It makes clipping coupons seem positively ancient.

And those ads in the Sunday paper? How long will it be until you need a cellphone to shop the ads? Well, by that time you'll be getting your paper on the cellphone. Shopping will be easy and spontaneous. Finding something else to put in the bottom of the bird cage is what is going to take time.

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