Back at the dawn of e-commerce, men ruled. Although it remained a given that women were more inclined to enjoy shopping, guys were decidedly more likely to buy online. But now, with the explosion of devices like smartphones and iPads—and the subsequent rise of mobile commerce—the gap has narrowed. Men represent 51 percent of consumers who use mobile devices to make purchases—just marginally more than women, according to a recent Forrester Research study. But only 9 percent of those men have used the devices to buy clothes.
“Men are more likely to buy books and consumer electronics,” says Forrester retail analyst Sucharita Mulpuru. “Women are slightly more likely to order food or flowers…or to buy apparel through their mobile devices.”
Yet men’s stores, from Brooks Brothers to Men’s Wearhouse, are going mobile—and for good reason. Even though, for most fashion retailers, the percentage of online sales coming from mobile devices remains in the low single digits, m-commerce is poised to grow quickly. And 2011 is shaping up as a breakthrough year.
Both brands and retailers have been laying the groundwork for a while, creating mobile apps and revamping their online stores to handle mobile traffic more easily. Sears and Urban Outfitters were among the first to move into m-commerce, and Ralph Lauren introduced an iPhone app as early as 2008.
Meanwhile, online retailers like Gilt, Rue La La and eBay have already demonstrated the potential of e-commerce. In 2009, eBay sold $600 million worth of goods over mobile devices, and it expects that number to reach $1.5 billion for 2010. At Gilt, as much as 20 percent of revenues come from these devices on nights and weekends.
As more consumers buy smartphones like Androids and iPhones, which offer easy access to the Web, the number who use their phones for shopping will rise—as will the number who scan items in stores to compare details and prices, says Mulpuru. Shoppers have long researched products on the Internet; now they’re scanning bar codes to see if the prices are lower somewhere else.
“This really skews to a younger crowd because they’re more mobile,” notes Mike Gatti, senior vice president of communications for the National Retail Federation. “But smartphones are making this easier, and retailers have to decide what they’re going to do about it.”
According to NRF, nearly 27 percent of U.S. consumers—and 30.1 percent of men—who own a smartphone were expected to use them to research or buy products this holiday season. The percentages were higher for young adults ages 18 to 24, and for shoppers with incomes of more than $50,000.
M-commerce increasingly includes big-ticket items. In December, Gilt offered a limited quantity of 2011 Volkswagen Jettas through its mobile app only for $5,995 (the starting sticker price is normally $15,995). Gilt also targets mobile customers with exclusive sales, such as a recent Holiday Dressing promotion. “We have a very loyal user base that engages with us via mobile apps, and we wanted to give them something special,” says John Auerbach, general manager for Gilt Man, which plans to launch new mobile apps when it unveils its full-price men’s store later this year.
Unlike Gilt’s female customers—who are attracted to particular brands, just as they are on the main site—Gilt Man’s mobile clientele favors basics like underwear, T-shirts and sneakers. But other shopping patterns appear to have changed with the advent of the iPad: While the iPhone accounts for most of Gilt’s mobile sales, the typical iPad owner buys more—and more frequently. “The iPad is a luxury device, so the owners of the iPad tend to be luxury customers,” explains Shan-Lyn Ma, Gilt’s senior director of product development.
Soon traditional men’s retailers will enter the field. Although most have not yet ventured into m-commerce, many say it’s in their plans. Among those in the vanguard is Brooks Bros., which is launching its mobile initiative this month with a two-pronged approach: a mobile Web site for use on all smartphones and a catalogue application for the iPad.
“Our customer has a high penetration of mobile devices,” says Brian Dean, vice president of direct for the specialty store chain. “And mobile traffic has really spiked since the iPad came out.”
The new applications will allow customers to shop and click through—a feature Dean calls “really critical.” If Brooks is spotlighting accessories, for example, the customer will be able to click directly to the product rather than having to search the site to find it. “It’s important to minimize the number of clicks,” he says. “People lose patience quickly.”
The iPad app will permit shoppers to flip through a virtual catalogue, research product details and click through to efficiently complete their purchases. “And we will also add rich content specifically for the iPad,” such as photos showing five ways to wear a vest or a video on shoes, Dean says.
Brooks Bros. is building applications for other mobile devices as well. But in each case, according to Dean, the key will be to “encourage interaction with the store.” To that end, one application will ask for style preferences, then suggest a complete outfit for the customer to develop in person with a store associate. An in-store program, meanwhile, enables the associate to create a virtual closet for a customer online, contact him by e-mail and invite him to the store. “Men are not recreational shoppers,” Dean says. “They only come in once a quarter, and if we wait until they show up, we’ll lose sales.”
Jos. A. Bank Clothiers isn’t far behind. With a strong online business, the retailer launched two new sites in 2010—one for big and tall, the other for its factory outlet division—and it plans to expand into m-commerce this year. “We think we need a good partner, and we’re close to picking one,” says Jerry DeBoer, senior vice president of marketing.
During the holidays, Jos. A. Bank’s online shoppers gravitated toward luxury items such as cashmere sweaters, blazers and leather coats. DeBoer notes that most of the purchasers were men. “At Father’s Day and Christmas, we get more women,” he says, “but men are our primary audience. They’re better buyers than they are shoppers. The Internet helps them do research, but once they trust our size and quality, they’ll buy more than one item. That way they don’t have to shop as often.”
The retailer is determined not to complicate things when it makes its mobile debut. DeBoer maintains that, since the company operates some 500 traditional stores, its mobile application must include a store locator. But user-friendliness is paramount. “It has to be quick and simple,” he says.
Men’s Wearhouse ran a successful mobile marketing campaign last year targeted to young men, according to Susan Neal, senior vice president of e-business and digital media. Its Prom Rep program encouraged teens to text the company for a chance to win a free tuxedo or a $100 Visa gift card. Those who signed up to be a prom representative received 10 percent off their tuxedo rentals for each friend who also rented from Men’s Wearhouse; anyone who signed up 10 referrals got a free tuxedo. Prom Rep was promoted at more than 1,000 Men’s Wearhouse retail locations, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, SMS messaging and other social-media channels.
To date, the company has directed all of its mobile initiatives toward young shoppers, who tend to be ahead of the technological curve. “For that age group, it’s the best way to interact with them,” Neal explains. But she hopes to extend these efforts to older customers as well—especially men, who are “high-tech, gadget-oriented and hate shopping, so they’re more inclined to go online,” Neal says.
“And Men’s Wearhouse is such a recognizable name,” she adds. “So there’s a lot of opportunity.”