With mobile shopping, purchases even more at hand for holiday shoppers

| Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 11:38 p.m.

Shoppers with a smartphone or tablet computer with mobile Internet access no longer must choose between fighting mall traffic or browsing for deals online from home.

Forecasts say mobile shopping will catch on in a bigger way this holiday season.

Major retailers that lost sales last year to customers who searched for items and prices in a store, then used smartphones to find cheaper prices online — a practice called “showrooming” — are coming out with their own mobile websites and applications. And retailers are equipping store personnel with technology to keep sales on their turfs.

“The lines are being blurred and are disappearing with different channels” for making purchases, said Jeff Hennion, president of mobile website and app developer Branding Brand of the South Side, and a former GNC and Dick's Sporting Goods executive.

Faster websites specially designed for mobile devices are replacing the awkward process of viewing a full website on a 4-inch smartphone screen.

With better tools, “you will see an incredible trend of customers using a retailer's mobile site while they are in a store” rather than trying to get a harried clerk to answer a question or find something in a different size, Hennion said. Shoppers at one end of a crowded mall might check online to see wheather a store at the other end has what they want before making the trek there.

L.L. Bean expects “high double-digit growth” in mobile shopping this year, spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said. The Freeport, Maine-based company has a store in Ross Park Mall.

The clothing and outdoor gear retailer upgraded its mobile website this year to align it more closely with the full site to make purchasing easier.

“Not bells and whistles — instead, just improving the overall functionality,” Beem said. “If the basics aren't right, nothing else is important.”

Macy's debuted a Black Friday app this month that previews holiday deals, allows shoppers to share lists and even steers them to where specials are located inside its department stores.

Findlay-based Dick's Sporting Goods new mobile app acts as a barcode scanner, rewards card and store finder. Customers also can use it to “like” the retailer on Facebook, follow Dick's on Twitter and check in for rewards via Foursquare.

Toys R Us and other major retailers are pushing “omni-channel” sales strategies. Customers can buy online — either at home or via mobile — then pick up purchases in stores and save shipping costs. The toy retailer said most items can be picked up within two hours of an order's being placed.

Javelin Strategy & Research said consumers spent more than $20.7 billion last year using mobile devices, with about $5 billion through tablet computers.

Shoppers who used tablets spent $10 more on average, the San Francisco research firm said, noting that tablet owners are expected to double within three years, making mobile retail “the channel to watch.”

Another research firm, Prosper Mobile Insights of Worthington, Ohio, said 55.3 percent of mobile device owners will use their smartphones or tablets this year to shop for gifts, find stores or conduct related research. Of those, 59.7 percent will compare store prices with an online retailer's, and 66 percent will check prices against another store's.

Total online sales are forecast to grow 12 percent this holiday season to $96 billion, the National Retail Federation's Shop.org said, compared with a 4.1 percent increase overall.

Julie Pagano of Squirrel Hill shops by using her smartphone occasionally, “if I'm out and about and I want something.” Beyond making purchases on the go, she uses the phone as a price checker.

Amazon.com is a frequent stop.

“Their online experience is really good” for mobile shopping, Pagano said, and an Amazon credit account allows her to buy items simply by entering a personal identification number rather than the full number on the card. She also uses a PayPal account for mobile purchases.

Mobile shopping, while growing, remains on the cutting edge at only about 2 percent of all sales, said retail expert Jeff Green in Phoenix.

Giant online retailer Amazon is the driving force behind retailers' multi-channel overtures that push customers to shop in-store, online from home and on the go, Green said.

“It's like for the first time Wal-Mart and Target are seeing things the same way, and realizing their competition is as much Amazon as it is one another,” he said.

More consumers are recognizing retailers' mobile sites, as well as rewards and shopping comparison sites, as a huge convenience and potential money saver, said Duquesne University marketing professor Audrey Guskey.

“You're in the store and don't know which HDTV to buy,” so the options are to research TVs online at retailers' sites, independent blogs — or simply by calling someone, Guskey said. Store sales associates also use tablets to help customers look up information and make purchases.

Kim Leonard is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or kleonard@tribweb.com.

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