Click to Start – How would you like to pay for that?

The customer walks up to the box office, selects their seats, the ticket seller calculates the total price, the customer reaches into their bag to pay and pulls out their …. mobile phone. The customer keys in some numbers, and presses ‘send’. The ticket seller hands over the tickets and the customer leaves.

Fiction? Well no. mCommerce has arrived, and it’s set to be the next ‘big thing’. Sydney train commuters have already had a taste, with soft drink machines at railway stations as part of a mobile phone payment trial. The vending machines display a telephone number, you dial that number on your mobile phone, your telephone bill is debited for the cost of the drink, and the can is released by the machine.

Mobile phones are ubiquitous in Australia. The marketplace is virtually saturated, with mobile phone companies now concentrating on extracting more value from their existing customers rather than seeking out new ones – explaining their recent moves to reduce the subsidy on mobile phone handsets, opting instead, as Telstra has done, for loyalty based payment plans, where you may still receive a discount on the handset at the time of purchase, but are penalised heavily if you swap carriers during the life of the payment plan.

Theatre, concert and cinema tickets are a logical choice for mCommerce. Mobile phones are often a lifestyle tool, not just a device to chain us to the office. We plan our social outings, stay in touch with friends, and frighten the heck out of other drivers on the road as we execute hair raising manoeuvres, steering wheel in one hand, mobile plastered to our ear.

The ‘killer application’ to date on mobiles is SMS – ‘short message service’, the ability to send small text messages from one mobile to another. We’re mad for SMS, Australia’s 12.5 million mobile phone users sent 2 billion SMS messages last year – that’s 150 per person.

The canny marketeers have already cottoned onto this new way of reaching the media shy, cynical customer. Hamburger companies promote competitions where you SMS a code number from the back of a salt and vinegar flavour chip packet to win a prize; radio stations run SMS requests (song requests sent in by SMS). The latest is proximity marketing, where a retail store uses a system which detects you walking past the front door, identifies you in the database as being interested in a certain type of their product, and sends you an SMS discount offer, all before you’ve had time to bend down and tie your shoelaces.

So far I’ve only seen one cultural organisation use SMS to effect. Melbourne Comedy Festival ran an SMS system this year, to communicate special offers –  discounted tickets ‘on the day’ and so on. As a marketing tool to manage last minute promotions SMS is perfect. Email is a fast way to reach a customer – but it presumes the customers are near their computers. We’re always near our mobile phone, so when a message arrives offering 50% off tickets for a show later that evening, it says two things – there might be a few more seats unsold than the theatre company would prefer …  and they are doing everything they can to shift those seats.

The notion of spam SMS has also arrived – unsolicited text messages promoting a product. It doesn’t seem to have taken much of a hold so far – but only because SMS hasn’t really captured the imagination of the (generally) technologically illiterate marketeers, and the technology hasn’t necessarily been affordable and easily used.

That incompetence is rapidly changing, to the point where some larger companies have moved beyond promotion and use it for more mundane tasks – a big hotel in Melbourne has trialed SMS to broadcast work roster information to its hundreds of staff. At any time they can issue a request to off duty staff if the hotel is caught unexpectedly by a higher level of business, and needs extra staff on duty.

The naysayers have threatened brain cancer, impotence, bone disease and a multitude of disabling health nightmares, but to no avail. Australians are mad about mobile phones, we’ve all got one, and we’re not scared to use them.

mCommerce is about moving beyond communication, and converging the convenience of an easily portable electronic device, with the already well accepted idea of phone banking. We’ve embraced the ease of online and phone banking – what my bank amusingly terms ‘convenience banking’, named so because it’s much more convenient for them if I stay away and do battle with a multitude of electronic gizmos, rather than actually walking in the door of their branches and requiring service from a real person.

The problem is, much as I love to bank bash (and after a particularly horrendous week negotiating with our bank I confess I’m ready, willing and able for a good stoush), there is actually something in all this ‘convenience’ stuff.

A few years ago to pay our staff we used to have to go to the bank, stand in a queue, and cash a cheque for quite considerable sums of money. Then walk, with trepidation, back to the office, divvy up the spoils amongst a bunch of envelopes, then distribute these amongst the staff. Who then in turn had to travel home with a bundle of cash burning a hole in their pockets – not a recommended activity particularly if you are privileged enough to enjoy the travails of travel on the public transport systems of many of our capital cities.

Today, we process the payroll through our accounting software, dial up the bank’s web site, log into our online business banking account, access a pre-saved list of our staffs’ bank account details, and push a couple of buttons to transfer the money from our account to theirs. No mess, no muddle, no security concerns, and instant gratification, although I still puzzle about where the money goes between leaving our account in the afternoon, and turning up in the staff member’s bank account later the next day – where does it go for those 24 hours – Bermuda for a quick holiday? I know we’re not earning interest on it, nor the staff, could it be the bank is, on some far off currency market? I really must restrain these unkind thoughts.

We use the same system for our suppliers, we pay online, often accessing the B-Pay system used by many utility and service providers. A push of the button, the power bill is paid, a click of the mouse and Telstra has their pound of flesh for another month.

If you’re still using a million cheques a month, and standing in queues all over town each day to pay the bills, your organisation needs to seriously consider the alternatives.

Online and phone banking have changed the way we deal with our suppliers and service providers. The final frontier is the way we deal with our customers.

The predominant payment method for most theatre and entertainment tickets is still the humble credit card, that little flat piece of plastic which has been around for years. Try as we might, we still haven’t found a more efficient way of paying for things we want, without handing over actual cash. EFTPOS and debit cards filled the gap temporarily, but the theory remains the same – a plastic card with various details encoded (and barely encoded at that) on a magnetic strip, which we then swipe at the box office. The bank then takes its cut, the card company takes its cut, and whatever is left over finally wends its way into the theatre’s bank account, sometimes a few days later. And as the Reserve Bank has shown recently, it’s becoming increasingly clear why the banks would like the status quo to remain – they’re all busy paying each other vast sums of money, through something called ‘interchange fees’, as part of the credit card payment system.

We’ve dallied with smart cards, but other than American Express with their funky new clear plastic credit card, no one has made a serious attempt to get smart credit cards into the marketplace. Not that the Amex card’s fancy features are much use because no retailers have the systems to interact with the cards. It’s just another way of endeavouring to prolong a comfy, and lucrative, oligopoly.

If mCommerce can make a mark, quickly and in a way that our customers can easily understand, and find reliable and secure, it will not be long before we all have a large sign at our box offices displaying the payment phone number, and our customers reach for their mobiles instead of their wallets when it comes time to pay.