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Shopping by smartphone this holiday season

More consumers are discovering their mobile devices can help them compare prices, research gift ideas, redeem electronic coupons and watch for special deals.

November 05, 2011|By Shan Li, Los Angeles Times
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  (Christopher Serra, For…)

As shoppers gear up for another mad holiday scramble, smartphones and tablet computers are emerging as Santa's electronic helpers.

And if the big guy up north isn't in touch with the times, shoppers are. Stuck in a humdrum economy and facing continued high rates of unemployment, consumers are increasingly finding that their mobile devices can come in handy. With a gadget in hand, shoppers can compare prices, research gift ideas, redeem electronic coupons and watch for special deals. Often, they do it right in the store aisle.

Retailers are catching on — just in time for the holiday season, the make-or-break time of year. Once content to simply sell these electronic devices, merchants and mall operators are now recognizing the increasingly important role phones and tablets are playing for shoppers and are eager to tap into this electronic path to consumers' wallets.

In addition to heavy promotions and the extension of store hours, many chains are rolling out shopping apps, mobile-optimized websites and spruced up social media pages.

"Retailers are looking at phones and tablets as one more channel to get shoppers, to drive brand loyalty and drive sales," said Jackie Fernandez, a Los Angles-based retail specialist for accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. "Consumers will be able to benefit from the discounts offered through them, especially around the holiday season."

About 1 in 4 smartphone owners plans to use a mobile device for holiday shopping, according to an annual holiday survey by Deloitte. Of those, 59% will use their phones to compare or check prices, 46% plan to use them to check product availability and 41% will get coupons through their handsets.

Social media, such as Facebook and Foursquare, will also be popular with shoppers, with 44% of those surveyed reporting that they will use social networks to find discounts, check out friends' or family members' wish lists and browse products.

Shopping with mobile devices isn't for everyone, especially for folks who prefer to browse through a mall at a leisurely pace looking for gift ideas. Even some fans of online shopping like to stick to their home computers — the screens are bigger and they don't have to squint to check out a dress or watch.

So whether you totally groove to technology or just recently bought a smartphone or signed up for Facebook, here are a few useful digital tricks for saving some bucks, and perhaps some time, during Christmas.

Mobile shopping guides

Some big retailers such as Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. offer their own mobile applications for shoppers to individually download to their smartphones or tablet computers.

With these apps, shoppers can often get up-to-the-minute information about sale items, instant bargains, what's located where and what's in stock.

Mobile apps, as well as websites geared for mobile devices, often tweak the online shopping experience to fit smaller screens with fewer items displayed per page and an easy search function. The Amazon.com app popularized one-click ordering for breezy checkouts without the need to fill in billing and address information over and over again (also upping the likelihood of impulse buying).

Perhaps the most useful apps collect product data from several retailers and sort it so consumers can compare prices side-by-side from local and online merchants to find the best deal. These apps, which include EBay's RedLaser, TheFind and SnapTell, can be downloaded for free and work by simply scanning a product's bar code.

That's a great help to price-conscious people such as Bill Grayson, a 50-year-old engineer who swears by a similar price-comparison app called ShopSavvy. After standing in line at Sears for hours to snag a big-screen TV during Black Friday last year, the San Jose resident said he scanned the bar code using the app just to see if the price was better elsewhere. He said he ended up saving $1,400 by buying it online.

"It helps me spontaneously make a decision whether to buy the product in front of me or wait longer for a sale," Grayson said. "I'm definitely going to use it again this Christmas."

Apps can offer more features than a traditional website. Bluefly Inc., an online fashion retailer that deals in discounted designer goods, sends an alert to your phone when an out-of-stock item you're eyeing becomes available again. Likewise, EBay's auction app will send a notification when you've been outbid at an auction.

Mall giant Westfield, which operates shopping centers including Westfield Century City and Westfield Culver City, recently added a new feature to its app that lets shoppers pinpoint which stores carry a specific item they're seeking. Type in "gold sandals" and the app will list the shops carrying gold sandals.

Social media

Retailers have increasingly turned to social media such as Facebook and Twitter to harness the power of their fans.

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