Retailers using mobile apps to drive up sales
Tia Smith clutched her new phone in one hand and a phone case in the other as she shopped at a Best Buy store in West Hollywood, Calif.
She clicked away into her smartphone's tiny screen and searched for the case in other nearby stores.
"I'm trying to buy this Otter phone case for my new phone," she said. "But I'm trying to see if Target or Walmart has it for cheaper," she said, "so they can honor the price match."
As more people turn to their smartphones and tablets when thinking about a purchase, retailers and marketing companies are rushing to figure out ways to transform these mobile browsers into buyers. Some are providing special bargains. A few are tracking shoppers' every move around the store and nudging them to seal the deal.
During the fourth quarter of last year, mobile devices were responsible for 16.6 percent of online sales, up from 11.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to an IBM Corp. study. Tablets drove 11.5 percent of those sales, compared with 5 percent from smartphones, IBM said.
"People are using smartphones and tablets on different occasions," said Charlie Anderson, chief executive of Shoptology Inc., a marketing company. "They're using the tablet at night when they're on the couch or in bed and making purchases or doing research, and mobile is more for doing research while you're in brick-and-mortar stores."
In a study produced last year by Google Inc., 44 percent of smartphone shoppers said they used mobile devices to shop because it saved them money.
Google's search engine is popular for comparison shopping, as are a proliferation of mobile apps that can read bar codes and other coded product identifiers using a properly equipped smartphone.
The field is still relatively young, so consumer-product companies and retailers are still figuring out how to attract these mobile shoppers, said Adam Guy, senior vice president of business development for Millward Brown, a market-research company.
Several retailers also have turned to special shopping apps. Some are fairly basic, guiding customers to various departments within a store, cluing shoppers in on specials, and enabling shoppers to make shopping lists and load coupons electronically.
Tools that provide promotional offers and digital coupons tend to be among the most popular methods of marketing on these devices.
Walmart has released a more sophisticated mobile-phone app that tracks a user's location using the phone's GPS and can offer in-store deals when it recognizes the shopper is in a store.
A few retailers are taking the concept even further.
In November, Macy's began testing a product called ShopBeacon at stores in San Francisco's Union Square and New York's Herald Square.
The app, created by Shopkick Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., enables a merchant to offer discounts on specific products that a customer has expressed interest in or, perhaps, has lingered near, prodding him or her to buy.
"We can find out where you are standing and how long you've been standing in front of the Michael Kors handbag, and if you haven't purchased," Macy's chief executive Terry Lundgren said at an analysts' conference in November. "And if you haven't, I'll send you a little note to give you encouragement to do so."
ShopBeacon, which uses sensors in a store to interact with Apple Inc.'s iBeacon location technology, began rolling out in January to 100 American Eagle Outfitters and Aerie stores in Los Angeles and other major cities. Shoppers are enticed to the opt-in technology, Shopkick said, not only by discounts, but also by the promise of rewards such as gift cards, music downloads, and movie tickets.