Using Black Friday ads to get the best deals could be grueling. If your best sales intelligence came from printed retail circulars, it meant organizing and comparing long lists. If you used an online deals aggregator, you still didn't have a good way of transporting that knowledge to the store without putting it on paper.
Enter the smartphone -- and retailer's rush to connect with customers through the device.
"In the past, what [retailers have] relied on is people to open up the paper and then go in and get the coupons for those doorbusters and everything else," says Kevin Kahn, CFO of TGIBlackFriday.com. "Now people can look at it on their phone and online weeks in advance.... It's a game-changer."
With consumers snapping up iPhones, new Motorola Droids, and tried-and-true Blackberrys, 2009 will be the first Black Friday where the smartphone will have a strong influence, Black Friday watchers agree. Mobile shopping's influence is sure to grow in years to come.
Sears sees the smartphone as a way to bring the company's online presence together with its physical stores, says company spokesman Tom Aiello.
"Some retailers are really good at online, some are really good at bricks and mortar. What we’re trying to do is fuse those together in a unique way and mobile is a growing part of that," he says.
After buying a product from Sears' Sears2Go iPhone application, for example, customers have an iron-clad guarantee: The product will be ready in-store within five minutes or customers receive a Sears gift card. This means even loyal Sears shoppers huddled outside its brick-and-mortar entities on the morning of Black Friday can place purchases to be filled on the other side of the store wall.
"You’re actually be able to, before the doors open, get online, place the order," Mr. Aiello says. "You can walk right to the package pickup and get your item and not even have to go to the showroom floor. It’s really exciting."
Companies like Toys R Us are making their websites mobile friendly, streamlining the online design and allowing shoppers to check inventory at local stores and make instant purchases.
Over 20 percent of shoppers say they will use a mobile phone as their second choice for online shopping, according to a survey by Convergys, a customer interaction and human-resources consulting firm. While shopping via the Internet at home (92 percent as a first choice) or from the office or at an Internet café or public place (just over 30 percent each as a second choice) is still more popular, mobile shopping still represents a solid chunk of potential sales. And in a year when some estimate that holiday retail sales will fall 1 percent from the 2008 level, retailers can't afford to let any consumers go unaccounted for.
"That’s a pretty significant number. A quarter of all of your customers are using smart phones and the technology that it enables -- comparison shopping, communication -- on a level that hasn’t existed in previous years," says Doug Farmer, senior director of program management for Convergys. "If you’re a web retailer and your web app is not conducive, not configured in a way that makes it easily navigated on smartphones ... it means you lose a lot of sales."
Although retailers are racing to get their websites up to mobile snuff and developers hammer out mobile applications, even some consumers with smartphones regard their mobile devices a bit warily when actually sealing a purchase, using them more for comparison shopping than actual purchasing.
"There is a psychological hurdle still to climb for people not just to comparison shop or find coupons from their phone," says dealnews.com editor-in-chief Dan de Grandpre. The company released an iPhone app that allows users to comb through deals from a wide number of retailers, create shopping lists, and receive a dedicated feed for the latest deals.
For all of their power to upend the way customers decide what products to buy, they might also have an equally disrupting effect on a customer's feelings about the product after the purchase. Up-to-the-minute sales updates can shorten the interval between purchase and buyers remorse. While standing in a long Black Friday checkout line, consumers can go over their purchases one last time to make sure they're really the best deals.
"Most stores have a very liberal return policy – especially if you haven’t walked out the door yet," Mr. de Grandpre says. "If you have some buyers remorse and you’re still in the parking lot, walk back in."