Of Love, T-Commerce And The iPad Buffoon

“Sir, you aren’t booked in this hotel until next month,” the clerk said as my heart sank. My wife was already gasping for air at the check-in counter, she was laughing so hard. A crafted romantic getaway had been thwarted by my mishandling of the iPad.

No joke. True story. I had plotted to surprise my wife on her birthday last October with a weekend getaway at a hotel within walking distance of our house. Apparently, a fat finger at checkout had booked me on the same night a month later than I thought I was booking.

First, you must understand that my wife loves coming with me to hotels because, she claims, she loves separating me from my house filled with gadget distractions. “You pay closer attention…TO ME!”

So for her birthday, I book a room literally a mile from our house for the weekend. I tell her simply to pack an overnight bag and then puzzle her as I walk us both right past the car. We walk to downtown Wilmington as she is wondering, what is up? Of course I am all full of myself at how clever I have been in giving her a birthday present that is as offbeat and quirky as she is and demonstrates that I actually have been paying attention all these years and understand her wants and needs.



Until the big reveal crashes headlong into the clerk at the local Sheraton. “And we are all booked tonight,” he adds. Which is why she is in hysterics as she sees the plan revealed and destroyed in seconds. She knows intuitively that I bungled something involving a gadget.

And it was all the fault of T-commerce. I got the inspiration for this scheme when iPadding one evening. I used the Safari browser to navigate to my favorite and trusted hotel booking site. Well, somewhere in the tortured process of navigating a site that was not optimized for tablets I must have advanced the calendar interface and booked for a Friday night the month after I intended. 

“This is the best birthday present I ever didn’t get,” she quipped.

All because I had been lulled into some false comfort buying over my tablet. We have been talking all year in this industry about the new “user modes” that touchscreens seem to create for us. There is a real difference, I expect, between having a laptop open and before you in the living room and having a tablet to tap and swipe. We already well know that engagement rates on tablets dwarf those of the Web when it comes to many content properties. Magazines were among the first to discover this in their early magazine apps. But in recent months, retailers have seen metrics coming from tablet browsers that got everyone excited. People like to shop on this thing.

“One of the largest electronics retailers this past season saw their tablet traffic grow from 1.5% year-over-year of activity to 3%,” says Alex Schmelkin, CEO, Alexander Interactive, who has been working with several major brands on optimizing their sites for tablets. He echoes recent preliminary metrics that show tablet users appear to be in a shopping groove in their prime-time browsing and actually spend more. “It may seem like a small segment, but the trajectory shows it is becoming important,” he says.

Schmelkin has other retail clients that are already seeing up to 10% of traffic coming from a tablet browser. And the electronics retailer is  getting average orders from tablets that are $50 higher than from the Web. Not only is the tablet customer more affluent, but Schmelkin is finding that "if you put them in a more immersive experience on the tablet, they will pay more.”

Alexander Interactive has been running “personal analysis” in the form of interviews with users to determine that tablet shopping mode is just different. “When you sit on the couch and evaluate a bottle of wine or a rug, it is a more intimate mode of shopping -- more casual and relaxed,” Schmelkin says.

For some retail categories he is working with -- like wine -- the demo, the mode of use and the time of tablet use converge perfectly. In these cases, he is looking at a tablet-first approach. For a high-end wine auctioneer, for instance, prime time for tablets is at just the point when a wine lover is thinking of cracking open that evening bottle. “It is even better than the desktop, when they are less inclined to buy that expensive bottle,” he says.

Some of the emerging nomenclature of tablet retail design comes from the responsive design principles that are becoming the new buzzwords among agencies and developers these days. While apps are best for the kinds of sites a user is visiting on a daily basis, browsing in retail is more opportunistic. Schmelkin leads many of these clients away from apps and to a tablet-optimized Web solution.

When responsive design can be implemented from the bottom up from scratch, then designers can anticipate what various site elements from a common code base will do on different screen and interface configurations. The feature set gets stripped down as the screen size degrades, but basic functionality and brand identity remain. With retailers that are not ready to rebuild, the company often will create a tablet-only experience.

Some aspects of a tablet-optimized experience are obvious. You need bigger buttons and have to dispense with the hover functions. But for retailers, image zooming becomes an issue on tablets if a low-res jpeg is filling the screen. They install extra code that detects the browser and swaps in higher-res images during zoom maneuvers. Drop-down menus  must be curtailed and made easier to navigate with fat fingers. And Next and Previous buttons in slide shows need to adapt to swiping maneuvers. The various screen sizes are proving especially challenging. All of the format changes that are acceptable on a 10-inch tablet suddenly become difficult to traverse on a Kindle Fire. “The smaller interfaces are feeling more like a smartphone than an iPad,” Schmelkin says.   

But while the average sale stats are higher for T-commerce, the conversions can still suffer, largely because the tip of the funnel is the typical choke point for willing buyers. Translating the payment process from Web to tablets needs special care. The forms and orders of elements -- limiting multi-screen Next/Previous operations, accounting for slower speeds and dodgy javascript handling -- all factor in to a point-of-sale piece that is still under construction for T-commerce.

Schmelkin is quite right, I expect, in saying that once tablet-optimized retail sites appear more broadly we will see the tablet conversions pop as many shoppers find that the tablet marries time, place and mode perfectly for tapping a buy button.

As for me? Well, my T-commerce activities have been curtailed of late.

“Can I call your daughter? Oh, please let me be the one to tell her this? Please?” my wife insists as we walk back home from downtown. “You just gave me the best present -- a story I can tell the rest of our lives.”

She adds: “You have to write a column about this -- you have to. ”

OK, sweetie. Here is your valentine: your husband humiliated by his iPad. 

1 comment about "Of Love, T-Commerce And The iPad Buffoon ".
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  1. Bo Sacks from Precision Media Group, February 14, 2012 at 6:03 p.m.

    Steve a remarkable and wonderful story. I laughed, I cried, and I agreed with the whole tale from a smart blissful family plan, to exploring tablet enterprise. Including the part of the inevitable growth of T-commerce, in with your lovely marital shenanigans was a great touch. With much practice, perfection is an achievable goal. T-commerce is much too young not to cause bumps in the road of sensible usability. My compliments to you wife who clearly has a great and judicious sense of humor.


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