As smartphones take over the job of powering more of the magic behind Christmas gift giving this year, a storefront along East Carson Street is filling up with employees focused on making mobile shopping easier, faster and basically better.
Branding Brand, a start-up business that moved to the South Side from Oakland this summer, has in the past two years helped retailers such as Ralph Lauren, Costco, Crate & Barrel, Kate Spade and American Eagle Outfitters take their stores onto mobile devices.
The mobile commerce platform company keeps hiring more people to help keep up with the work, and expects to have 120 employees by year-end. Two years ago, it had 10.
Shopping with cellphones and tablets is such a rapidly evolving area that Branding Brand keeps one room stocked just with all the new devices, as well as older ones that consumers haven't dumped just because the tech community thinks they should.
"We're always kind of layering on top for new devices," said Chris Mason, co-founder and CEO of the business started by three Carnegie Mellon University graduates back in 2008.
But they've got to stay out there on the cutting edge, too.
One of the hot new apps of the moment is Passbook, an Apple creation for the iPhone or iPod touch designed to serve up airline tickets when the user arrives at the airport or coupons when they walk into a store. It may also further the push toward a true mobile wallet.
Branding Brand worked with Sephora to allow the cosmetic retailer's loyalty club members to use Passbook to easily access their points and other info. Sephora's tool launched along with Apple's iOS 6 in mid-September.
"With the help of Branding Brand, we saw 600,000 downloads of our iPhone app and 200,000 Beauty Insider cards added to Passbook in the first two weeks of the Passbook integration," said Julie Bornstein, senior vice president, Sephora Digital, in an email response to a query.
Before the holidays arrive, Branding Brand expects to help 20 more retail clients adapt Passbook for their own purposes.
The company didn't start out doing this, exactly. Founded in 2008, the interactive marketing agency worked on marketing but also focused on analyzing things such as where traffic to clients' websites was coming from. It turned out that traffic from mobile devices was tiny but growing quickly.
When the agency did some work with Dick's Sporting Goods, the team at the national retail chain based near the Pittsburgh International Airport mentioned it was looking for a solution for mobile commerce. Branding Brand took the challenge and launched Dick's mobile site at the end of 2009. Now the company works with more than 80 brands and supports more than 100 sites.
"Mobile in many ways now is the easiest way to purchase," in Mr. Mason's opinion.
But he can attest, through personal experience, that both the technology and retailers' use of mobile options has had to come a long way.
Mr. Mason tries to do most of his shopping through mobile devices, to the point that the company cuts bar codes off items it uses regularly -- say Clorox wipes -- and then scans the codes when it's time to re-order. Sometimes the mobile purchase can be a clunky process as retailers haven't adjusted their e-commerce operations for the small screen.
"When it started out, a lot of people had the idea you had to dumb down mobile," said Christina Koshzow, another co-founder and the company's chief marketing officer. Websites brought up on smartphones could be hard to read, hard to operate within the small screen and no match for the experience in the store.
People now expect their phones to be able to track orders, check balances and scroll through merchandise as easily as their personal computer might.
A National Retail Federation survey earlier this month found more than half of consumers with smartphones and two-third of those with tablets plan to research and buy gifts with them this holiday season. They'll be using portable technology to shop from the kitchen table, but they'll also pulling out their phones to check store hours and compare prices.
Proof that major retailers see mobile as another tool for ringing up sales -- and one that must be accommodated -- Target this year is putting its top toys along main aisles, complete with a QR code "that can be scanned to purchase the toy directly using a mobile device and ship it for free to anyone, anywhere in the U.S." The chain is also offering to match prices of online competitors such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Toysrus.com between Nov. 1 and Dec. 16.
Like mobile commerce, Branding Brand is moving beyond the start-up stage.
The company this month raised $7.5 million in funding led by New York private equity and venture capital firm Insight Venture Partners. It also hired a former GNC and Dick's executive to serve as its president.
The new money is meant to help scale up capacity to handle more clients, even as retailers pinched by several years of economic challenges try to figure out what technological improvements are worth the investment.
Mr. Mason is convinced more retailers will work toward reaching a baseline level in mobile commerce, now that they're seeing consumers want that. "The thing about mobile is you don't leave your phone at home like you do your desktop computer."
He believes digital devices don't just cannibalize traditional stores in favor of online stores. One example might be when a customer at the mall is interested in a pair of shoes, but the store doesn't have the right size. For some of its customers, Branding Brand is integrating inventory tracking systems with mobile commerce systems.
Mr. Mason doesn't entirely avoid bricks-and-mortar stores. He just feels more empowered about when he chooses to go. "Now when I shop in a store, it's because I want to participate in the retail experience."
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or at 412-263-2018.