The WAP phone holds out a future where we can buy anywhere at any time, says Paul Clarke Retailers must make WAP phones an essential part of the promotional mix to get customers into the shop. For the WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) or web phone is the promise of a buy anytime, anywhere culture. Within only a couple of years, we could even see switched on grocers reward their most loyal customers on their loyalty card database with a phone. Not a kindly gesture, but the most insightful way yet of monitoring consumer spending patterns and putting your brand to the fore whenever those spending decisions are being made. WAP technology adds a whole new dimension to the mobile phone. It provides information, products and services, giving access to the same basic technology building blocks as a PC for surfing the net. Instead of a complex interactive display, you get a tiny, rather primitive screen. But that screen allows you to target people on the move with information personalised to them. And special offers are arguably better suited to a WAP phone than a web site as they have the same pulling power as shop window promotions. They can get people into the store when they're walking past. Someone on their way home, deciding whether to pick up a takeaway or a ready meal might turn to their WAP phone to see what's on offer. It's about targeting people when they are out and in the mood for shopping. The phones provide timely, even instant, location based, personalised, easy to use, non verbose services. And it's not just about reaching the consumer. Booker is about to use a WAP facility for alerting hard pressed independent retailers and caterers with special offers and product updates. But while retailers like HMV have plans for an e-commerce WAP portal for music, it's currently too costly for consumers to use their phone to buy a loaf of bread and it always will be. For food purchases, it is more realistic to combine internet shopping with the WAP channel, where customers spend time building a shopping list on their PC and use the phone to decide when to make the purchase or perhaps change the delivery time. Waitrose recently became the first supermarket to launch its WAP internet site. With this move, the multiple has hit the nail on the distress shopper's head. What better way than a mobile phone to reach a travelling business exec, with a tight schedule, who suddenly realises today is mother's birthday? Simple store location details with information on the product range could help distress purchases of a different kind. A family arriving at their holiday destination to find their luggage has gone missing and in need of necessary basics could use their WAP phone to get a listing for the nearest supermarket and check opening hours rather than try to find a local store. This is where retailers with a national, and preferably international, presence and a wide range of goods, from milk to medicine to clothes, will win. WAP phones also suit personal, or discreet, shopping. A WAP phone can act as an internet buddy' by being suitable for purchases that people would rather not disclose, which is a danger with interactive TV or PCs. This gives retailers access to more personalised information on consumers and enables them to tailor promotions to meet their needs better. The WAP phone, and therefore the retailer, can become a best friend consumers confide in. WAP phones will help retailers own the customer. To do so, it is vital to have a WAP portal with "walled garden" where consumers can browse for free and read all the promotions designed for them. Intelligent agents should guide consumers around, and once the consumer strays from here to browse other sites via links, they have to start paying. One of the key barriers to the WAP explosion is also an opportunity ­ the high cost of using mobile phones. We are likely to witness a sea change in charging, either to a flat rate or free, and retailers must be ready for this. Even better, they must lead the way. Learn from banks who are already forming alliances with telco companies. And to make effective use of all that bandwidth, smarter devices running more complex software, for real-time audio, video will be required. WAP phones only support simple black and white images. Current devices are intended to be only a little more expensive than non-WAP phones. But as m-commerce flourishes some of that revenue will be diverted to further subsidise devices with even more advanced features eg bigger, colour screens and voice recognition. By the second half of the year, the majority of WAP portal providers will have released the second version of their portal sites that support personalisation and mobile conference, making it possible to complete transactions over a WAP phone and have it added to the phone bill or paid by credit card. Take the high ground. Make the most of this new channel. If you don't, others will. Paul Clarke is senior WAP consultant for Cap Gemini. {{MANAGEMENT FEATURE }}