When it comes to mobile shopping, so far there's more buzz than buy. • As the number of people who use smartphones grows, companies selling everything from hardware to high fashion are touting their new applications they're rolling out that enable shoppers to do anything from check a store's inventory to order prescriptions.
Retailers are betting that selling their wares on a device that people carry around all day can encourage Americans to spend money during an economic downturn in which they're making fewer impulse buys in their bricks-and-mortar stores. But so far, consumers mostly are using their phones to look up locations and compare prices and stopping short of tapping the "buy" button. Why? In part because they find it hard to shop on the tiny screens and they don't quite think it's safe to input their credit card information into their phone.
To be sure, mobile purchases are growing faster than online sales, which are increasing at around 10 percent a year. But mobile commerce is expected to account for $6 billion, or just 2 percent of overall e-commerce sales this year, according to Forrester Research. By 2016, that figure could rise to $31 billion — still a sliver of electronic sales.
"The transactions aren't anywhere close to a big number," says Siva Kumar, whose company, TheFind, offers mobile price-checking applications. "But the first stage of any revolution is that people start using the new tool."
The use of smartphones is indeed growing. There are 82 million smartphones in circulation today in the United States — one in every three people 13 and older owns one — and that figure is expected to double by 2015. And smartphone users are increasingly using mobile applications: The average user spends 81 minutes a day using mobile apps, more time than is spent Web browsing on a computer or other device, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry.
But smartphone users are spending most of their time playing games, checking social networks, taking video, accessing maps and getting sports scores, according to digital research firm comScore. Shopping, meanwhile, ranks at No. 13, with less than 7 percent of mobile users accessing online retail stores through their phones.
Retailers are partly to blame for shoppers' apathy. Less than a third of retailers polled by the National Retail Federation in May said they have a fully implemented mobile strategy, which might include an application available for download by iPhone, Droid and BlackBerry users. It's far less pleasurable to hunt down a new pair of boots when it requires zooming in and out of a site that's not oriented to the mobile screen, shoppers say.
Another big impediment is the payment process. Typing billing information into a phone can be tedious and time-consuming, and many shoppers aren't convinced that mobile sites are safe. In one Forrester poll, 44 percent of shoppers said they would use the mobile Web to make purchases if the payment services were more secure.
Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester analyst, says mobile payments are generally safe and this is a "perception issue" stemming from fear of the unknown. Overall, she says, it will take some time for Americans to fully embrace mobile shopping — just as they did with online shopping.
The most successful mobile shopping sites are eBay and Amazon, which together account for four out of every five mobile shopping transactions. Ebay reported nearly $2 billion in mobile sales last year — more than tripling its 2009 total — and it expects to reach $4 billion this year. And last July, Amazon capped off a 12-month period of mobile sales exceeding $1 billion.
Both companies were early to invest in mobile, but just as importantly, they've been able to smooth the checkout process by accepting PayPal or storing payment information in users' accounts. They've also worked to make searching simpler. With Amazon's price-checking app, for instance, you can speak the name of an item, and it will show the lowest price in its marketplace. And with eBay, customers can receive a notification when they've been outbid or the bidding is ending for a particular item.