August 15, 2010

Retailers use Web tools aimed at younger shoppers

Shoppers and retailers are turning to cellphones, "haul videos," virtual dressing rooms and social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to make the most out of this year's back-to-school shopping season.

With billions of dollars at stake, retailers are going after back-to-school shoppers where they are spending an increasing amount of time - on their cellphones and on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter social-network sites.

They are launching applications, or "apps," for smartphones, running promotions and contests on Facebook, setting up sites where customers can show off their purchases online or superimpose their clothes on a customer sitting before a webcam.

Shoppers are relishing the novel ways to shop and the instant tips they get about special promotions and deals.

"It's the best way to reach teens," Staples Inc. spokeswoman Karen Pevenstein said of the new kit of marketing tools being embraced by retailers.

Young shoppers are expected to spend more than $200 billion of their own and their parents' money this year, making them one of retailers' most sought-after demographic groups.

Much of that will be spent from July to September on back-to-school supplies and clothes.

Katie Suarez of Phoenix consulted Forever 21's Facebook page before recently heading out to the retailer's Scottsdale store for some back-to-school shopping. The savvy consumer also looked at pages for independent stores she likes such as Rowdy Boutique in Phoenix.

"I go where the best deals are," she said.

Forever 21 is currently running a Hot Summer Sale with some "must-have" items as low as 79 cents.

Altogether, consumers are expected to spend $55 billion on back-to-school clothes, supplies and related items. That compares with $47.5 billion last year.

Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bank's annual Backpack Index estimates it could cost up to $474 to outfit a student for elementary school this year, $545 for middle school and $1,000 for high school.

Facebook and 'haul videos'

For most of the year, office-supply retailer Staples caters to small businesses. But in July and August, it turns its attention to parents and students.

"Back-to-school has become a really big event for us," Pevenstein said.

Staples brings in more than 1,000 specialty items for back-to-school and this year is turning to Facebook and Twitter to help market locker lights, Glam Rocks pens, binders and computers.

Customers also can access Staples' fliers, coupons and special promotions via their cellphones. The company just launched an app for iPhones that allows users to locate stores and receive offers through their phones.

Once-staid J.C. Penney Co. also has embraced new media.

J.C. Penney spokeswoman Kate Coultas said the company is focusing much of its back-to-school marketing this year on social-media sites, iPhone apps and other emerging marketing tools.

"We're using more non-traditional components to engage the teen customer, and we see that continuing," Coultas said.

This year, J.C. Penney has tapped into the teen trend of making "haul videos" to show off purchases after forays to the mall. There are more than 150,000 such videos on YouTube, and some are racking up millions of views by consumers.

J.C. Penney and other retailers such as American Eagle and Forever 21 have recruited some of the better-known shoppers to make haul video using their clothes. J.C. Penney recently flew five established "haulers" to its Dallas store, gave them $500 gift cards, and asked them to make videos of what they bought. The videos are posted on the company's Facebook page with links to the various products.

"It's teenage girls speaking to other teenage girls," Coultas said.

J.C. Penney also has partnered with Seventeen magazine to create a virtual dressing room for back-to-school, where teens can superimpose the company's clothes on an image taken by a webcam.

The company also is coming out with an iAd for iPhones. The advertisements appear on iPhone apps that appeal to teens and provide a link to J.C. Penney's haul video virtual dressing rooms and online retail site.

"We're providing tools that let consumers decide how they want to react to the brand," Coultas said.

Consumers' strategy

Phoenix shopper Yvonne Cordiero uses her cellphone to locate stores and find about specials and promotions.

"If I'm at home, I use my laptop," she said. "But if I'm out, I can get most of the information I need with my phone."

A recent study by accounting firm Deloitte found that three in 10 consumers plan to use their cellphones and social-networking sites to help with back-to-school shopping this year. Most will use the tools to access deals, compare prices and get the most for their money.

That offers a business opportunity for stores.

"Retailers' ability to influence purchase decisions beyond in-store interactions is growing significantly," said Alison Paul, head of the U.S. retail sector for Deloitte.

FastMall 3.0, a free iPhone app with floor plans of the seven largest malls in metro Phoenix, provides step-by-step directions to specific stores, restaurants, restrooms and other mall services. A new version coming out in September will notify stores when shoppers arrive at the mall so that they can send them last-minute offers and coupons.

Paul noted that companies that can directly engage consumers through mobile apps, text alerts and video content may "win an increased share of shoppers' back-to-school budgets this year."

Of the $55 billion in back-to-school spending, an estimated $34 billion will be spent by college students and their parents.

To reach that market, retailer Target Corp. has added a "College" tab to its Facebook page with coupons, supplies checklists and shareable cellphone apps to help students determine how to furnish their dorm rooms or apartments and manage shared bills and chores with roommates.

"Students continue to be on the leading edge of social-media usage, and we will reach them in their world," said Target spokeswoman Jenine Anderson.

by Max Jarman The Arizona Republic Aug. 14, 2010 09:51 PM

Retailers use Web tools aimed at younger shoppers

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