Late last year, Alexander von Schirmeister, vice-president of marketing at eBay, said in an interview with Spanish business newspaper El Economista that the nation's consumers were surprising his company. "[Spain] ranks second among all countries when it comes to … sales made via mobile devices. Spaniards have skipped the stage of buying via computers and have gone directly to buying by telephone," he noted. Although von Schirmeister did not elaborate on the reasons for this trend, his comments illustrate the change in mindset that is taking place among Spanish consumers.

But how are companies responding to this shift in consumer attitudes and buying habits? Will firms begin to off more and more products and services through this sales channel? In a recent study, University of Burgos marketing professor Sonia San Martín and Mateo Carpio, a research fellow in the regional government of Castillo and Leon, investigated the factors that motivate Spanish firms to offer mobile sales, and the repercussions of their attitudes toward it. In mid-2011, the researchers conducted a telephone survey with managers responsible for selling long-distance or on electronic platforms at 125 Spanish companies. The results of the study were published during the second half of 2012 in Universia Business Review, in an article titled, Selling by Mobile Telephone: The Viewpoint of Spanish Companies.

Mobile phones have become an intrinsic part of life for consumers living across the globe. In 2010, the number of mobile lines in Europe had already reached 120 for every 100 inhabitants — meaning there were more telephone lines than people, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Spain is not an exception to this trend, with 112 lines for every 100 people in 2010, and 114 lines per 100 in 2011, the International Telecommunication Union reported.

But it is one thing to use a mobile phone as a simple means of communication, and another to use it as a tool for making purchases. In the United States, for example, Forrester Research noted that in 2011, 60% of consumers who owned a mobile phone used it at least once to make a purchase. Profits from online sales in America are expected to triple in the coming years, Forrester said.

When it comes to measuring demand in Spain, however, there are barely any figures or estimates. According to a 2011 study about business-to-consumer electronic commerce by the Spanish National Observatory for Telecommunications and the Information Society (ONTSI), by 2010, 15.2% of Internet users in the nation had acquired or downloaded products and services through their mobile devices, a four percentage point increase over the previous year. The study noted that these transactions were primarily purchases of songs and games, although there were also sales of ringtones and contest entries.

Taking into account the general attitude of consumers about this channel — whether or not they have made a purchase this way — the outlook for mobile is even more favorable than attitudes toward buying over the wired Internet, San Martín and fellow University of Burgos professor Nadia Huitzilin Jiménez noted in a previous study. The reason for this, they said, is that "consumers trust their own telephones more [than they trust the Internet in general], since they feel that [their phone] is something more personal than other devices. Beyond that, there is the additional advantage of being able to use it without having to be connected by a cable to a network from a particular location." Nevertheless, San Martín adds that users who are the most distrustful of mobile devices will continue to show some reluctance toward mobile e-commerce, especially in the case of transactions that require them to provide a lot of personal data, or those that require them to click through multiple screens before completing the purchase.

For companies, however, San Martín suggests that embracing mobile commerce comes with one key advantage: In comparison to traditional purchasing over the Internet, the mobile channel expands the age of potential consumers. "People who are more than 45 or 50 years old may have been left behind when it comes to buying over the computer," she says. "However, they might purchase via a mobile device because they are more familiar with [smartphones], provided that the [software] applications [that they use for such purchases] are simple and, for example, permit them to continually deduct their purchases from their ongoing balance. Purchases made via [traditional web-based] computers are not usually that simple."

She adds that "if the mobile application with which consumers are interacting is too complicated, it will hard to develop this sales channel." For that reason, San Martín notes that before this sales channel can grow, various technological barriers must be overcome. Consumers must be able to navigate e-commerce sites using devices that often have very small screens and that are not very sophisticated. As phones become more affordable, some of these barriers may disappear — others, she says, may never go away, such as "the high fees charged for navigating the Internet in Spain. Although they have gone down as a result of European harmonization [common standards across the internal market], they continue to be very expensive."

The Supply Side

In their study, San Martín and Carpio point out that there is still enormous potential for companies in Spain to capitalize on mobile e-commerce. But firms can only do so successfully by "moving from a sales paradigm in which the consumer enters the environment of the sellers, to a paradigm in which it is the sellers who enter the environment of the consumer at any moment and any location."

But most companies face a long road in order to implement this change in their business models. The study noted that mobile sales in Spain are in an incipient state from the supply side of the equation. As in the early days of wired online sales, the first moves toward mobile e-commerce have been limited to advertising and marketing initiatives. More specifically, the participants in the study mentioned having undertaken such activities as marketing reminders, promotions for services and corporate giveaways of products.

This does not mean, however, that most companies do not perceive advantages in selling over the mobile channel. On the contrary, 80% of executives who responded to the survey noted that their companies reaped advantages from the implementation of a mobile channel strategy. The researchers also found that the companies that were most receptive to this approach were larger firms (or those with more than 250 employees) in the service and consumer product sectors.

By contrast, the researchers also found that 20% of respondents did not see any reason to sell via the mobile channel because they believed that it was of little use given the existing technological characteristics of mobile telephones — including small screens — and because customers are not sufficiently inclined to buy over that channel. This group was mostly comprised of small companies (those with fewer than 50 employees) that belonged to the industrial sector and had little familiarity with the new channels of marketing. As a result, write the authors, these firms "have never used viral marketing strategies, theydon't have their own websites and they have never used mobile advertising or sales at any time." Nor do these firms have a dedicated budget for such activities.

Despite the favorable disposition of the more receptive firms, a range of barriers combine to prevent mobile e-commerce from becoming a reality for other companies. The most significant challenge stems from a distrust of this sales channel, the researchers say, and the fact that their workers and managers have limited understanding about how to apply it. The researchers note in their study that, as a result, it makes sense to promote educational initiatives in the public sector and within companies in order to "enhance the implementation of technologies in companies and to reduce the anxiety of people about technology. This is a problem that exists even within those companies that are most receptive to mobile e-commerce."

Another barrier, the researchers add, is that many executives think that mobile e-commerce and traditional electronic commerce are quite similar. As result, those companies see little need to apply mobile e-commerce to their overall sales efforts because the usefulness of traditional, web-based electronic commerce has already been demonstrated. In addition, several companies noted that another disincentive to implementing mobile sales was the fact that their competitors had not done so either. The authors suggest, however, that it could be beneficial for such firms to consider the opportunities that come from being a pioneer in applying new technologies to their sector or geographical region. In their view, one way to incentivize the use of mobile e-commerce would be to organize a conference at which people from various companies could exchange their experiences with this technology.

Finally, the authors say that another series of obstacles to developing a mobile strategy stem from perceptions that this channel is rarely used now, or from views about what kinds of devices now exist. Although the researchers note that an increasingly competitive sales environment has improved the mobile devices available on the market, they add that there is a need to reduce the charges paid in Spain by consumers who surf the web on their phones. The authors also suggest that firms investigate which market segments and niches could be more open to mobile e-commerce, and try to focus their strategies on those areas. "With the passage of time, and as platforms, devices and necessary strategies are perfected, there will be no doubt that selling [via the mobile web] is a natural step for the great majority of companies that use other types of technologies to sell, such as the [wired] Internet," the researchers write.