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Back-to-school shopping goes mobile

Post reporter Ylan Q. Mui explains why retailers are wading into the brave new world of mobile commerce and shows shoppers how one of the latest smartphone applications works.

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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Back-to-school shopping deals are just a text message away this year as retailers wade into the brave new world of mobile commerce.

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JCPenney sent customers texts with the latest fall clothing styles and discounts, and even print ads encourage users to send a text for special sales alerts. Sears and Kmart promoted a mobile app that allows shoppers to order merchandise and have it shipped to a nearby store, while American Eagle gave away free smartphones to anyone who tried on jeans. But many retailers are still waiting to see whether mobile shopping will pay off after the novelty wears off.

About 29 percent of consumers said they planned to use their phones to power through their back-to-school shopping lists, according to a survey this summer by consulting firm Deloitte. About 38 percent of those shoppers said they intended to check prices, while 30 percent were looking for discounts and coupons. Alison Paul, Deloitte's U.S. retail leader, called mobile technology a "wide open area of experimentation."

"This back-to-school season will inform retailers and consumers as to who is doing that well and who is doing that consistently," she said.

Industry experts and techno-evangelists have long predicted a day when people no longer make the long trek to the mall or even tether themselves to their desks to shop. Now, as more Americans are snapping up smartphones that can access the Internet and boast large-screen displays that make it easy to browse for clothes or microwaves, the future may not be far off.

The number of cellphone subscribers who have smartphones has grown to 25 percent this year from 16 percent in 2009, a study by market research firm Nielsen shows. That could help fuel the growth of what was a $1.2 billion mobile shopping market last year in the United States , according to ABI Research, a consulting firm.

Richard Mader, the executive director of the technology standards group for the National Retail Federation, a trade association, said stores are experimenting with mobile shopping in several ways.

The first step, he said, is usually through marketing and advertising, similar to many of the back-to-school campaigns. Kmart Chief Marketing Officer Mark Snyder said the chain's mobile app, called Kmart2Go, is targeted toward busy moms. The company launched it just before the holidays and has been trying to teach shoppers how to use it.

"It takes a while for her to understand the power of these things and how they can serve her," Snyder said.

In fact, retailers say their top two mobile retailing goals are to drive sales to their Web sites and offer price and product information -- not to complete the sale on the phone, according to a study by NRF and Forrester Research. Retailers also reported in the study that mobile browsers generate an average of 3 percent of traffic to their Web sites and account for 2 percent of online sales.

Mader warned that reaching shoppers over their phones is a delicate proposition.

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