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T-commerce — carving out and extending e-commerce on the tablet platform

September 13, 2011

[Essay I wrote for the book published at Mobile Future Forward 2011 conference]

The tablet explosion: Consumers have been shopping for them, but how will consumers shop on them? With consumers gobbling up tablets – an expected 60 million units will be sold in 2011 – what kinds of apps are likely to be the winners for t-commerce?

Consumers are rapidly adopting tablets, mainly the original iPad and the new iPad 2. There are also a slew of Android tablets gaining traction, despite less than stellar market introductions of the earlier models. In addition, offerings from RIM, HP (still born, largely) and Microsoft are nipping at Android’s heels.  With iPad 2 leading the way, and improved models from Samsung, Sony, HTC and others, consumer adoption could reach 60+ million units during the 2011 holiday season.

Since the iPad was first introduced in April 2010, consumers have been seeking and finding plenty of new ways to use this versatile device. What stands out, as a theme among the most successful apps, is that they are built around media consumption. In addition to email, gaming and social networking, popular uses of the iPad include browsing websites, reading books on the Kindle or iBooks apps, reading newspapers and magazines via dedicated apps, and watching videos on apps from YouTube, ABC, BBC, Netflix, and Hulu.

It is no longer a surprise that consumer usage of tablets is starting to take time away[1] from desktop computers and, interestingly enough, from TVs as well (though there are also studies which indicate that tablets are being used while the TV is turned on in the background). While PCs have historically been used for almost everything, they really excel in task execution and content creation. In contrast, tablet usage is more focused on content consumption[2] – a very key and perhaps pivotal point, as search gives way to browsing and serendipity. In fact, in a study conducted by Resolve Market Research, 49% of users said they would buy an iPad and not an e-reader, and according to a JP Morgan study 1/3rd of PCs beling sold are being largely used as media devices and are potentially the addressable market for tablets)

Who’s buying iPads?

This foretells a market that is growing dramatically, yet is only in its infancy. There are three contributing factors for someone buying an iPad – trendiness, utility and affordability. Needless to say, Apple’s marketing machinery has pulled a coup as far as labeling the iPad as cool. Utility is now indisputable (especially for media consumption), and the $499 price point has opened up a whole new genre of consumers. This easily explains how 37% of iPads are being bought by consumers as their first ever Apple product purchase.

According to a Nielsen survey, most iPad users are between 25 and 55, and make at least $50,000 a year. However, the really interesting part is that over 40% are young adults (25-36), and 35% have household incomes of $100K or more.[3]

Who’s shopping, and who’s shopping on iPads?

Let’s examine a few huge markets in the US.  E–commerce. Even at its present $170 billion, it still represents only about 7% of US commerce in general. The vast majority of shopping is still done offline in conventional ways. Of particular interest is the $100 billion (printed) catalog shopping market. This revenue is derived from the 20 billion catalog mailings consumers receive annually.

In looking at the ways consumers are using tablets as media consumption devices, we believe that tablets could rejuvenate and grow the catalog shopping market dramatically. We posit in this article that progressive retailers will blur the lines between catalog, retail, and e-commerce.

The Tablet Advantage

Tablets’ devices and their use cases are quite distinct from laptops’.  They don’t have dedicated physical keyboards.  Despite being smaller, lighter and thinner, their displays have extraordinary resolution and color depth, and image displays on them are striking.

More importantly, tablets are personal. They are as much a lifestyle experience delivery platform as a productivity platform. This fact was not lost on Apple in its initial launch campaign back in 2010.

When you look at the iPad’s most popular applications and its unique physical and psychological attributes, you begin to understand why the dominant tablet apps are lifestyle-driven and browsing-centric. The most striking example of these is the “tablet magazine.”

Tablets are about the same size, thickness, and weight as magazines.  They aren’t quite as portable as magazines, but are much more so than laptops (and TVs, of course).  And they show full-color images with the same brilliance as glossy magazines. But unlike magazines, tablets can update content constantly.  They are live magazines!

So what about t-commerce?

Magazines and e-commerce have two primary features in common: browsing and advertisements. Online, magazines have a clear advantage over search marketing when it comes to discovery shopping as readers discover new items being advertised. Similarly, catalogs promote commerce by sharing characteristics in common – buying, while browsing in a natural way. You might call it relevant and contextual advertising, and catalogers realize a solid payback from the investment they made in merchandising their products.

Tablet-based magazine and catalog apps can take advantage of the speed and convenience of the network to access live data that is constantly being updated and refreshed. This results in always-up-to-date prices and in-stock products, a combination of browsing and search, the helpfulness of product and price comparison, and (like e-commerce) the ability to purchase immediately. Moreover, tablet-based catalogs can be personalized in a way that was simply not feasible with their printed cousins.  Apps that can deliver catalog-shopping experiences with curated pictures produce a potent draw. Beautifully and professionally laid product pictures can tap into the aspirational needs of readers. They can promote impulse buying. Catalogers that can personalize experiences for shoppers will promote increased engagement and browsing as they deliver an entertainment value similar to that of shopping at a brick-and-mortar store. Such apps will create a win-win for both retailer and consumer.

Shopping, however, is not yet a primary consumer use case for tablets. We believe this is because of the lack of shopping apps that truly tap in to the lifestyle delivery potential of the tablet.  Some shopping-related apps, like eBay, Amazon, and GILT, get a reasonable amount of usage on iPads. GILT’s app[4] (shown here) combines current content with great visuals. Consumers liked it enough that it drove over 4% of GILT’s total sales[5]. According to Bill Siwicki of Internet Retailer, “when 4% of your total revenue is coming from one device—not one type of device, such as a tablet PC, but one singular device, an iPad tablet PC — you should be currying favor with these device users, and then some.”

Pure catalogers such as Cornerstone Brands now derive 57% of their revenue from e-commerce; while even multi-channel retailers/ catalogers such as Williams-Sonoma claim 30% of their sales from e-commerce. There is a lot of potential here from the growing base of tablet using shoppers to drive more catalog inspired sales on to e-commerce. It is progressive retailers, like these that will blur the lines between catalog, retail, and e-commerce by making their catalog materials and product information available in elegant new  ways on innovative catalog tablet apps. It may appear to be a nascent market at the moment, but with a slight “future forward” view, it is quite clear to us that – in 2011, t-commerce has indeed arrived!

Catalog shopping apps rev 1.0

Early generations of electronic catalogs (even on the web) were largely based on downloading and viewing PDF versions of printed catalogs, and were built as separate apps for each and every catalog title. Using these apps posed two issues for consumers:

The first was that, after opening any of these apps, all you could see were catalog cover thumbnails. You then had to tap the cover and wait for the catalog PDFs to download before you could start shopping. In the worst case, downloads like this could delay your shopping by several minutes, even on a fast Wi-Fi connection. Spontaneity is lost. Downloading catalogs using cellular networks could take much longer and tax your monthly bandwidth limits.

The second was that most consumers liked to shop across multiple catalogs. They had to find and download all the corresponding catalog apps (if available) and get familiar with the different controls and features of each of those apps. It was definitely not an ideal user experience for browsing catalogs on tablets.

In addition, for many catalog retailers, building and maintaining an app for each of their catalogs was quite burdensome.

What is coming in the next generation of t-commerce apps?

Catalog apps are now focusing on scalable server-side database technology and on leveraging attractive product imagery and lifestyle photos from retailers. They are being designed to make tablet shopping and browsing by category simple and fun. In parallel, retailers are actively seeking new opportunities to showcase, promote, and sell their top products in a manner optimized for merchandising.

Apps with clean interfaces and striking visuals will emerge as winners. These will be apps that deliver an Internet shopping experience that seeks to inspire and excite the consumer, and are not just about comparison shopping and the lowest price. Users need to be able to browse or research products they like with ease.

What’s Catalogue?

Catalogue by TheFind transforms the paradigm of online shopping from one that is search and lowest-price driven to one that plays to the merchant’s strengths in merchandising and visual presentation.  At the same time, Catalogue draws consumers in with a more visually engaging shopping experience that draws on the latest trends and allows for more serendipity and discovery.  At the time of this writing, the app has been publicly available for three months and has been downloaded more than 250,000 times.

At its core, Catalogue has been successful because we recognized that the tablet is a media consumption device and we developed our app with a simple goal in mind: shop-ertainment.  Blending the best of catalog browsing with our world-class shopping search technology, we have delivered a comprehensive yet easy-to-use and fun app.

Consumers get the best of all worlds: they can browse through the same lifestyle photos in the print edition, click deeper in to product details, or better yet, they can click through to our partner’s site for that product that they must have immediately, and add it to their shopping cart – all in just a few clicks!

We believe that this kind of experience will become an integral part of the future of e-commerce. Though still very early, T-commerce is rapidly emerging as a vibrant growth segment in it’s own right as the functionality of tablets grows, and creative apps that take advantage of the platform appear, in the not so distant future.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2011 10:18 pm

    I too am writing about the same thing. Just stole a few of your lines. Hope you won’t mind.

  2. October 16, 2011 8:54 am

    Go for it… as long as you give me credit 🙂

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