There are more mobile devices on this planet than people, but squeezing out a dollar from those bits of metal, glass and plastic remains pretty difficult.
That was the picture painted by Twitter vice president of corporate development and strategy Rishi Garb, Pinterest product manager Sarah Tavel, ThredUp founder and chief executive officer James Reinhart and Zirx ceo Sean Behr. They were speaking at a put on by venture-capital firm Trinity Ventures at San Francisco’s Terra Gallery.
According to estimates from eMarketer, mobile commerce is expected to reach more than $100 billion in retail sales by 2017.
Mobile devices present several critical problems to companies using them to generate sales. The panelists pointed out several challenges faced by mobile-app developers, including the devices’ small screens, the tendency for mobile users to buy less-expensive goods and services and the difficulty of appropriately formatting advertising for smartphones. Because of the comparative sizes of the diminutive devices, Behr, who co-founded the valet-parking app Zirx, said, “You have to be so diligent about the choices you make and what you really want the consumer to engage with, and I think it is a real skill for a great product person.”
Still, mobile usage is reshaping social media and e-tail. At Pinterest, Tavel said 75 percent of users access the discovery platform via a mobile device. That’s a radical change from two years ago, when Tavel called Pinterest “basically a Web company.” As a result, Pinterest officials have begun to think a lot about how phone users interact with the platform and how to improve that interaction by enhancing the platform’s capabilities. For instance, Pinterest recently launched a function that adds key words during “guided” phone searches, thereby relieving the user of having to arduously type search word after search word on the tiny mobile keyboard.
Garb noted that 80 percent of Twitter usage is mobile. Leveraging that usage, the social-media network has introduced a commercial element with a “buy” button that appears on select tweets. The goal for Twitter is to “enable commerce to occur that feels authentic,” Garb emphasized. The company is mulling over whether to permit local businesses to somehow sell on Twitter, he indicated. “There’s a lot of intent [to purchase] that’s captured on the platform, whether it is for local commerce or mobile commerce in general. I don’t think we have, really, from a product perspective, focused on or harnessed that intent,” said Garb.
Although content endures as king at Twitter and Pinterest, the latter is trying out commerce functionality, as well. Pinterest worked with Shopify on “pins” — visual bookmarks for merchandise that is saved onto Pinterest users’ boards — that show the prices of items, regularly update the availability of those items and reveal brand names. “That is something we will keep extending. We really want to help our pinners do things, [and] buying is one of those things,” said Tavel.
In comments on news topics du jour, the panel wasn’t extremely enthusiastic about getting on board with wearables such as the Apple Watch or Google Glass. Behr said, “Are our customers really looking for that? I don’t know how many of our customers have Google Glass on. If lots and lots of them started to wear Google Glass, I guess we would look at it.” He added that, for Zirx to join the Google Glass fray, “I’d be happier if a million of those units shipped first.”
Breaking from the panel’s subdued response to wearables, Tavel was positive about the Apple Watch, which will feature Pinterest’s app. As an example of how the watch could be valuable to the company, she imagined a scenario in which a Pinterest user, walking into Nordstrom, would receive pins displaying that store’s available shoes. “I think that’s many years away. It’s not something that’s within reach,” she predicted. However, she said wearables are likely to better deliver that kind of experience because “having something that’s more approximate to you, not necessarily in a bag,” would assist in doing so.
The panelists weren’t surprised by the news that PayPal and eBay are splitting into two separate companies in 2015. “As PayPal has become decoupled from being the core currency of the online auction, it makes more sense to have it as a separate company,” said Behr, who was involved in Shopping.com, an eBay acquisition. He continued, “It will force both companies to prove innovation.” Garb said, “The rationale for the spin-out is nimbleness. If you want a nimble, stand-alone PayPal, you want nimble, standalone strong leadership, and I think that question is still unanswered.”