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Net-a-porter shoppers can shop the latest arrivals or read the magazine via iPhone.

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The Tokyo Girls Collection fashion show attracted more than 20,000 visitors in September 2008.

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Industry retailers are jumping on the mobile commerce bandwagon.

By Christmas 2010, shopping on the road, while waiting on line at the supermarket, traveling in China or backpacking through France — wherever there is cell phone service — just might be as normal as shopping online.

This story first appeared in the July 14, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The latest entry: London-based luxury e-tailer Net-a-porter on Monday launched a shopping application for the iPhone. Users who download the free application can see what’s new in the store, shop and update their wish lists, among other things.

At least 11 major companies, from Polo Ralph Lauren to Sears and CVS to Galeries Lafayette are raising their profiles by offering shopping on Web-enabled cell phones. Dozens more launches are expected in the next year.

The moves are being propelled by the explosion in the number of consumers using the latest phone technology.

“Like a number of players in our space, we have been looking at and planning for mobile commerce for some time,” said Net-a-porter vice president of marketing Alison Loehnis. “Just under 20 percent of our customers have an iPhone or iPod Touch. The notion of being chained to one’s desk is already a thing of the past and will only become increasingly more so.”

Net-a-porter’s immediate sales projections are modest, but the company hopes to provide better service to its existing customers and possibly pick up some new ones who may discover the store while browsing iPhone applications, Loehnis said.

Net-a-porter joins firms such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Urban Outfitters, Galeries Lafayette, Yoox, Victoria’s Secret, CVS, Sears, SVC, Amazon and Etsy in offering mobile commerce. To mark the kickoff, designer Roland Mouret, whose apparel is featured on Net-a-porter this week, and the site’s founder, Natalie Massenet, tonight will discuss the future of technology and fashion at Apple’s Regent Street store in London.

Mobile shopping is part of a much bigger trend, in which shared online resources and Web-enabled devices make it possible to do anything that can be done on a desktop at any time and from any place with cell or wireless service. For example, it’s possible to update a blog, Facebook page, create or view a video of a garment sample, work on a group spreadsheet on GoogleDocs or post a review on the go.

“From the retailer standpoint, this will definitely be the next big thing,” said analyst Sucharita Mulpuru of Forrester Research Inc. “People will say, ‘I’ll buy it on the way home.’ It has a time-shifting and place-shifting capability.”

More than half of Web shoppers own a Web-capable phone, and 14 percent of them have used the device to shop, a Forrester Research report said in February. Five percent of mobile shoppers have purchased apparel.

So far, traffic and purchases from mobile devices is minor compared with e-tail and brick-and-mortar stores, typically less than 2 percent of online sales, but it is expected to grow quickly as more retailers offer the capability.

Smartphones with Internet browsing capabilities make up about 10 percent of the U.S. cell phone market. About 20 percent of mobile phones shipped in the U.S. last year were smartphones, for a total of 34 million smartphones of 170 million mobile phones, said analyst Ramon Llamas of International Data Corp. He predicted smartphone sales will increase this year even as sales of all mobile phones decrease slightly, to 37 million smartphones and 150 million mobile phones.


Cell phones can access regular Web stores, but navigation can be difficult and frequently the shopping cart will not work. Adapting an existing Web store to run well on all mobile devices can take as little as six weeks. Or retailers can write an application for a specific device, such as a Blackberry, Palm Pre or iPhone, which takes advantage of unique navigation capabilities and features such as location awareness. A mobile store can use the same security as a Web store, with encryption that protects credit card data based on the latest industry standards.

Ralph Lauren was one of the first designers to launch mobile shopping last year alongside 3-D bar codes, which are common in Asia for promotions. A shopper snaps a photo of the bar code (on a package, magazine ad or billboard) and the phone is automatically redirected to a Web site. At, shoppers can purchase a handful of casual shirts and chinos from the RL Classics line.

“Mobile gives us a new channel to communicate and engage our consumers with the world of Ralph Lauren,” said David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising, marketing and corporate communications. “The immediacy of mobile engagement can have enormous impact on consumer habits.”

When Yoox put up a test site in April without any announcement, 710 customers placed orders over their cell phones in the first month. (The orders were from real customers who found the site on their own, not testers.)

Yoox founder Federico Marchetti has said the results have been encouraging.

The retailer also builds and hosts Web stores for clients such as Marni, Pucci and Armani, so some of those could have their own stores for mobile devices by the end of the year, Marchetti said.

“There’s a fundamental shift going on with how people use and interact with the Internet,” Sears mobile innovations team leader Thomas Emmons said in November 2008, when Sears launched its mobile site, Sears2go. “As more and more devices come out and they get better, we will see a much bigger push into this. We think there’s a strong future in this, and that’s why we got involved.”

The regular Sears site experienced a “marked increase” in visits from mobile device users, particularly the iPhone, in September 2008, Emmons said last year, adding: “If you’re marketing to people who read 85 percent of their e-mails on a BlackBerry, and you don’t have a good mobile site, you’re losing that customer.”

Sears views mobile as one way to reach its many offerings, including brick-and-mortar stores, Sears’ in-store kiosks, its Web store, Sears’ repair service and its two community sites (MyKmart and MySears). “We looked at what are the available technologies to help us empower the customer to shop to save time and money,” said Sears spokesman Tom Aiello. “As mobile continues to proliferate and get higher penetration, we want to use that to enable our customers to have easy access to our products and service.”

Shoppers who use Sears’ iPhone application receive special offers targeted to their location. For example, Sears could send discounts on Chicago Bulls merchandise to Chicago-area consumers in the fall.

The company has received orders for parts and tools from mobile customers in remote locations, including from customers who ordered generators during ice storms when regular telephone service and power were unavailable. Sometimes shoppers will be browsing at a different retailer’s brick-and-mortar store and, unable to find what they are looking for, order it via mobile phone from Sears2go, Aiello said.

“Everyone we talk to agrees that this isn’t some passing trend,” said Nick Taylor, president at Usablenet of New York, which has adapted Web stores to mobile devices for about 250 clients, including Sears, Victoria’s Secret and CVS. “More and more people are statistically expected to have successful experiences on Web sites with mobile phones, and that’s only going to dramatically increase. Anyone in the Fortune 1000 or Internet Retail 500, to the extent that you believe your company needs a Web site, you should have a mobile site.”

The travel industry, particularly airlines and railroads, was the first to move onto mobile. Taylor said he expects leading retailers will move onto the mobile Web in the next six to 18 months.

Although mobile commerce is relatively small, shoppers who use it in addition to other channels are likely to be the most valuable customers, just as multichannel shoppers are more valuable than brick-and-mortar shoppers, said Forrester’s Mulpuru. In addition to sales, the mobile Web has great promise to influence purchases via promotions, such as on Microsoft Tag, the 3-D barcode platform Microsoft introduced at the National Retail Federation convention last year.

“My hunch is that visiting the Web site to purchase is going to be a fraction of the interest retailers can generate,” Mulpuru said. “We know 90 percent of retail dollars are spent in brick-and-mortar stores, and we think a lot of those dollars can be influenced by mobile devices.”

Japan is further along with mobile shopping than the U.S. or Europe, partly because of better screens. Consumers there have been buying books and music via cell since 1999, said cell phone analyst Yuichi Kogure. Three-dimensional barcodes are popular, and phones equipped with a special chip and software can act as “virtual wallets” for riding the subway, buying items from vending machines, and making purchases at the $1 billion Japanese retailer Casual City.

The twice-yearly Tokyo Girls Collection event held in one of Tokyo’s Olympic stadiums has played a major role in lifting the profile of shopping by mobile phone in Japan since starting in 2005, said Takahiro Yamamura, a business professor at Bunka Fashion Graduate University in Tokyo.

Thousands of teens and young women pay from about $53 to $80 to see a fashion show with trendy, youthful designs.

“Even if you can’t go to the show, you can see the clothes on your phone and buy them on the spot,” Yamamura said, adding that he’s surprised at the phenomenon. He expected mobile shopping to be popular for more basic items like T-shirts, which are less subject to sizing and quality issues, but didn’t predict young people would use the technology for more fashionable items.

“But it turns out that people are buying trend items,” he said. “They are seeing them for the first time on their cell phones and buying them on impulse without [having the luxury] of trying them on.”

Shopping is a natural evolution of cell phone use, Yamamura said. Cell phones have effectively become small, easier to carry substitutes for computers.

“Size variation for Japanese consumers is not very wide, and return of merchandise after purchase is very low,” said Kana Sasaki, investment analyst at investment research information division of Mitsubishi UFJ Securities. “This is another reason why retailing through cell phone is popular.”


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