November 21, 2010

Holiday shopper's key tool: cellphone

Jason Alden/Bloomberg Budget-conscious shoppers are expected to turn to smartphone apps to research products and compare prices.

Shoppers this season will be dividing their attention between the physical merchandise at stores and the virtual goods on the screen of their cellphone.

Smartphones and tablet computers with GPS tracking and Internet access are expected to emerge this holiday season not only as top gifts but also as indispensable shopping tools.

A burgeoning number of Droids, iPhones, BlackBerrys and other devices will be pressed into service this season to make shopping easier, more efficient and more economical.

A National Retail Federation survey found that more than 1 in 4 of the estimated 60 million to 70 million smartphone users in the United States planned to use them to shop this holiday season.

Among 18- to 29-year-olds, the number increases dramatically, to about half.

The effects on the shopping experience could be enormous as the number of smartphone and tablet-computer users grows.

Deal-conscious consumers who are rapidly warming to online shopping can use their phones and iPads to locate merchandise, get directions to stores, research products and compare prices, all while on the go.

- No more buying a product and then finding out it was cheaper down the street. Shoppers can scan the bar code with their smartphones to check the price of the item at stores all over town.

- Forget about buying an expensive toy and having it ignored by a picky child on Christmas morning. Shoppers can use their phones to check reviews by other consumers to determine whether a gift will be a hit or a dud.

Steve Valdez of Phoenix got a smartphone last Christmas and regularly uses it to research and locate products and to compare prices. Recently, he found a turkey fryer he'd been looking for on sale at Bass Pro Shops.

The new devices are a game-changing technology for retailers, which have been given a new vehicle to inexpensively engage and communicate with customers.

- If an item is moving slowly, retailers can mark it down and blast the sale information instantly to customers' cellphones.

- If a new shipment of a high-demand, previously out-of-stock product comes in, retailers quickly can notify customers of its availability.

"Its all about reaching customers where they are," said Bob Friedland, a spokesman for Toys "R" Us.

A Toys "R" Us iPad application allows youngsters to deposit information about products in the company's toy catalog into a wish-list drop box.

"By reaching out to consumers via mobile applications, digital marketing and social networks, retailers may be able to enhance brand awareness and build traffic and sales this holiday season," said Alison Paul, vice chairman and head of the U.S. retail practice for the accounting firm Deloitte.

Smartphone and iPad users are growing rapidly and the technology is evolving. More shopping applications and new technologies are on the way.

"I constantly shop with my phone," Brian Sherman of Ahwatukee Foothills said on his way into the Nordstrom Last Chance store in Phoenix. He uses the bar-code scanner on his Android phone to compare prices and gets alerts from retailers when the price drops on a product he's interested in.

Sarah Ingham of Phoenix recently used her Android phone to visit two of her favorite stores: the Shop at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the MoMA Store at the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York.

"They have some incredible things," she said.

She browsed to get Christmas ideas and added a couple of items to her Christmas wish lists on file at the stores.

Smartphones are at the top of many people's lists this holiday, with the number in use expected to explode to 140 million users in the United States by the end of 2011, according to the consumer-research firm Nielsen Co.

Such potential has software engineers scrambling to develop new applications, or apps, to help retailers reach and sell to their customers and help consumers navigate the increasing number of online retailers, products and deals.

Outdoor outfitter the North Face is testing a smartphone application that notifies a store when customers come in range so it can reach out and draw them in with offers and deals.

Simon Buckingham, CEO of Appitalism, a clearinghouse for smartphone apps, estimates there are more than 25,000 programs related to shopping and retail.

This year, they include a growing number of applications related to Black Friday, such as TGI Black Friday and Black Friday Survival Guide.

Most major retailers now offer free smartphone applications that allow consumers to connect to their websites with the touch of a button. On the sites, consumers can find the nearest store, check hours, peruse recent ads and fliers, chat on Facebook and Twitter pages, order products and pay for purchases.

For example, Target customers can download coupons to their smartphones that can be scanned at checkout. They also can use their phones to scan products' quick-response codes in the company's Christmas catalog to access more information and make a purchase.

"Target is making it easier than ever to shop, thanks to our innovations with mobile devices," spokeswoman Sarah Bakken said.

Smartphones with Internet access and built-in shopping applications are expected to give a big boost to online shopping in particular, a realm already rapidly gaining acceptance with consumers.

Analysts are predicting a 15 percent jump in online holiday shopping this season as value-conscious consumers turn to the Internet to make sure they are getting the best product at the best price.

Often, they find that online prices can be lower than at brick-and-mortar stores, particularly if the shipping is free. If the best price is at an online store with free shipping, shoppers can use their phones to order and pay for the item.

by Max Jarman The Arizona Republic Nov. 21, 2010 12:00 AM

Holiday shopper's key tool: cellphone

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