NEW YORK–With so much attention on turning mobile phones into payment devices through hardware upgrades, banks may be missing a growing opportunity in the mobile Web browser.

Smartphone payments from systems such as Google Wallet, which relies on a phone with an embedded contactless payment chip, are all well and good, but few retailers are equipped to accept them.

Retailers are much more interested in banking products that facilitate online sales, especially those conducted on a mobile phone or even through social media. "Better to pick the low-hanging fruit," said Sucharita Mulpuru, vice president and principal analyst of Forrester Research, speaking Jan. 16 at the National Retail Federation's 101st Annual Convention and Expo in New York.

Online retail sales were about $60 billion in 2011, roughly 15% of total retail sales, according to Forrester. That is up 2 percentage points from 2010 and 9 percentage points from 2005.

Mobile is only 2% of online retail sales, or about $6 billion. But while it has featherweight status in terms of sales volume, mobile is driving cross-channel engagement. About 16% of consumers use mobile devices to look up product information, 30% use them to look up store hours and 23% use them to locate a store.

Tablets such as Apple Inc.'s iPad are also driving engagement. Twenty-one percent of mobile retail traffic came from tablets in 2011, according to Forrester.

The data resembles findings Deloitte LLP published in September. Despite a sluggish economy, the average growth rate of online retail sales is 20% annually, the report said.

"Mobile devices are much broader than accessing the Web or content or even inventory availability," Mulpuru said. But when it comes to social commerce, "the silence is deafening," she said.

Social media prompted less than 1% of retail sales in 2011, though slightly more customers (3% or less) say they learn about deals from social media.

However, nearly 90% of retailers surveyed by Forrester last year said they've made investments in custom-built stores on Facebook and other online social media sites. "We are in the post social-hype era: Facebook isn't irrelevant, but it's smaller and different than what retailers envisioned," Mulpuru said.

Banks should think about doing more work with data analytics companies and merchant reward companies like Cardlytics Inc. and Cartera Commerce Inc., which both drive deals around customer acquisition, Mulpuru said.

Through Cardlytics' merchant-funded rewards program, "most banks gain a share of revenue" from merchant sales, Rod Witmond, a Cardlytics spokesman, wrote in an email.

"It's a rewards program that the bank itself can leverage, taking advantage of all the transaction-targeting capability to cross-sell customers with that bank's own products," Witmond wrote.

The big drivers around e-commerce, mobile commerce and the electronic wallet are likely to be Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google Inc., Mulpuru said.

"These are companies that are gatekeepers of traffic and curators of content," Mulpuru said, adding that about one-third of shoppers begin their research on Amazon.

Banks, which have a large and complex line of products to sell to consumers, also would do well to follow the lead of these companies in the simplicity of their Web and mobile site design, Mulpuru said.

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