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Moving new ways of marketing

The mobile phone is a little device with huge potential. Mobile shopping, known as mCommerce after the online retail revolution of eCommerce, is transforming the phone into a portal through which retailers can pour pictures and sales collateral. This leads to purchases being completed on the spot, while the phone itself opens up retail innovations to a mass market.

The latest manifestation of mCommerce is augmented reality (AR), a sophisticated software engine that links a visual image recognised by any smartphone or tablet computer to video clips, attractive graphics or other product information. The idea is that consumers will flash the camera of their device at a poster and get back a screen full of exciting pictures that prompt an instant, mobile purchase.

In the vanguard of AR are Aurasma, a unit of UK data analysts Autonomy and part of Hewlett-Packard (HP), the world’s largest technology group. HP is big in cloud computing, parking client information in huge data centres where other software applications and services can be called upon when needed.

Ed Adshead-Grant, HP’s European head of cards and payments services, describes how this enormous computing firepower is boosting mobile shopping. “We can host all the images needed for AR inside the cloud and bring the power of a massive database down onto a consumer device,” he says.

The mobile phone is a portal through which retailers can pour pictures and sales collateral

Mr Adshead-Grant, who is emphatic that AR is enjoying a vigorous reception among consumers who have downloaded the Aurasma app onto their smartphones, adds: “There is real excitement at this app, it bridges the real world and the world of online commerce.” Retailers who sign up for Aurasma can offer location specific information, with the consumer volunteering to have their phone’s movements trigger an AR broadcast as they pass a particular store.

While advocates boast of AR’s graphics and 3D presence, its attraction to retailers lies in the fact that this new school of marketing is pushed out to devices without any intervention from the shop in question. The near-field communications (NFC) radio waves, which are the basis of contactless payments, require retailers to install terminals, whereas AR keeps the entire transaction on the customer’s device. “So the idea of starting and settling the whole sales process on the mobile device appeals to retailers,” says Mr Adshead-Grant.

Other mCommerce technologies offer a convenient point and click sale, but AR brings the fruits of a gigantic HP data centre to the party. This means that consumers can be drawn into a seductive world of moving images.

But is AR what most people really want? Chris Donnelly, head of UK retail practice at business advisers Accenture, sounds a note of caution. “There is a question whether AR will be truly embraced by the majority of customers,” he says. “Our consumer surveys reveal that customers do not want to be barraged with messages about discounts and deals all of the time. So the technology needs to be developed to allow for better screening of the information that flows onto an AR user’s device.”

Thomas Davies, head of Google apps UK, identifies two macro trends: mobile browsing; and localised searches. “Localised searching is becoming more and more important to people and we’re seeing a trend away from desk-top computers to any mobile device with a browser,” he says.

And as mCommerce experiments with different levels of user-engagement, the challenge of maintaining a consistent brand image across channels increases. Argos, for example, has placed huge emphasis on allowing consumers to mix and match different channels, such as internet, text and store visits.