Retailers try to lure holiday shoppers on social networks, smartphones

Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners LLC, talks about the outlook for U.S. retail sales during the holiday season. Johnson speaks with Betty Liu on Bloomberg Television's "In the Loop." (Source: Bloomberg)
By Danielle Douglas and Steven Overly
Capital Business Staff Writers
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 12:07 AM

Tech-savvy parents can chuck Toys R Us's 100-plus-page holiday catalogue and download the iPad app this year. If they check into the store on Foursquare, they could save a little extra on a Moxie doll or Sing-a-ma-jig. And those who sign up for the mobile mailings can expect a few scannable coupons sent to their smartphones.

This holiday season, more retailers will try to reach wallets by way of consumers' mobile phones and computers. Apps to compare prices, social media deals and location-based discounts are among the most tech-savvy efforts. But while mobile technology and social networks have become more popular, their use as a shopping tool remains in the nascent stage.

"There will be more people with their iPhones in hand shopping, and it's going to be the highest number ever, no question about that," said Sucharita Mulpuru, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. "But when you look at the big picture, most people aren't going to have their smartphones in hand."

Bar code scanning

Those banner ads trumpeting a store's "lowest prices in town" can now be verified in some cases with the snap of a phone's camera.

Best Buy, Target and Toys R Us are employing QR codes for shoppers to find information or competitors' prices for camcorders, blenders or robotic Bigfoots. The codes, scanned by a smartphone's camera, are also included in magazines and coupon circulars.

New York-based Scanbuy is among the companies offering such technology. Chief executive Mike Wehrs said its product was used to scan more items in the first six months of this year than in all of last year.

An online Forrester Research survey found that 18 percent of adults said they will use a mobile phone to compare prices. But not all, or even most, of those shoppers will be using scanning applications for price comparison. Many scanners require special bar codes that aren't yet found in all stores.

"I would say that its [use is] still very low, but we're seeing companies like Macy's and Gap do programs," Wehrs said.

Geolocation deals

Several retailers are partnering with geolocation services such as those from Foursquare, Yelp and Facebook Places to offer discounts or other incentives to customers who "check in" on their mobile device upon entering the store. Such services take advantage of Global Positioning System technology built into many phones.

Sports Authority will give away 20 gift cards worth $500 each to Black Friday shoppers who use their mobile phones to check in on Foursquare and then tweet their location to friends.

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