Firms Dial Up Mobile Plans Through Apps

The iPhone application frenzy has caught on with retailers and shoe brands hoping to connect with customers.

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iPhone application from Nike

Photo By Edwin Estrada

NEW YORK — Fashion and footwear firms are increasingly tapping into the growing mobile phone market, but it’s still too early to tell whether these new digital ventures will ring up sales., Sears and Foot Locker have already begun taking advantage of the new marketplace with mobile commerce (or m-commerce) sites and mobile-friendly versions of their own sites.

“The penetration of people using mobile is growing, so we’ve got to integrate that in a unique way,” said Tom Aiello, VP of public relations for Sears Holding Corp., which launched its Sears2go m-commerce program last November.

According to a recent study by Forrester Research Inc., 52 percent of U.S. online shoppers have a phone that is Web-enabled, though only 14 percent of that group actually used the phone to make a purchase.

However, Apple’s iPhone has introduced a new way to utilize the handheld device, with slick applications that can be downloaded for free, or for a small fee, from an online store and can do just about anything.

The Apple Store alone offers 50,000 different applications, and other mobile developers, including BlackBerry, Nokia, Palm USA, Google and Sony Ericksson are also rolling out devices and stores to meet the app demand.

In addition to being popular gadgets, applications could provide the stepping stones to online sales, according to observers. Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis at ComScore Inc., explained that most mobile sites are clunky and unreliable because they are adapted from the Web, but apps are built specifically for the phone, so they are easier to use and can accommodate higher-quality images — an especially important feature for fashion brands. “They actually do prompt transactions,” he said.

While apps serve a variety of functions, some are more closely linked to e-commerce than others.

Net-a-Porter jumped to the small screen in early July with a free mobile application, called Net App, that offers shoppers access to all its high-end products from any location. “We’ve always been about customer service and making shopping easy,” said Alison Loehnis, VP of sales and marketing for Net-a-Porter. “We knew our customers are busy and that time is a luxury, so we thought, what if we can allow them to shop at the airport or from the backseat of a cab?”

In addition to the site’s merchandise, the app also features content from Net-a-Porter’s weekly online magazine and its popular wish list functionality. In the first week, 20,000 people downloaded the program, according to Loehnis.

And though sales projections are modest for the app, Loehnis said she sees it as a complement to the site’s online presence and forthcoming m-commerce site. “For us, it’s a service vehicle and a sales driver,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lucky magazine’s iPhone application is bridging the gap between virtual and real-world shopping. (Lucky and Footwear News are both owned by Condé Nast Publications.) The application was created with Internet firm NearbyNow Inc., which collects inventory from brick-and-mortar stores to help shoppers find a specific item in their size at local shops either via the Web or by phone.

Each month, the app features Lucky’s shoe picks and offers users the chance to purchase them online or find them at a local store. Scott Dunlap, CEO and founder of NearbyNow, said that 17 times more people choose to buy in-store.

And so far, Dunlap said, the pickup and purchase rates are strong. In fact, the program’s sales conversion rate is about three times as high as most Internet commerce sites. “Of all the shoppers that are coming from an iPhone, 5 to 6 percent are coming into stores to purchase. Whereas in the Web world, a conversion rate of 1 to 2 percent is considered good.”

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