Smart phones and tablet computers with the best GPS tracking and Internet access are expected to emerge this holiday season not only as top gifts but also as indispensable tools to make shopping easier, more efficient and more economical.
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.
A National Retail Federation survey found that more than 1 in 4 of the estimated 60 million to 70 million smart phone 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 smart phone and tablet-computer users grows.
Shoppers can scan a bar code with their smart phones to check the price of the item at stores all over town, and can also check reviews from other consumers to determine whether a gift will be a hit or a dud. Sometimes 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.
The new devices are a game-changing technology for retailers, who 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' cell phones. If a new shipment of a high-demand, previously out-of-stock product comes in, retailers quickly can notify customers of its availability.
"It's all about reaching customers where they are," said Bob Friedland, a spokesman for Toys R Us.
Sarah Ingham of Phoenix, Ariz., recently used her Android phone to visit two of her favourite 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.
Simon Buckingham, CEO of Appitalism, a clearinghouse for smart phone 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.
Most major retailers now offer free smart phone 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 smart phones that can be scanned at checkout. They also can use their phones to scan products' quick-response codes in the company's Christmas catalogue to access more information and make a purchase.