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Shop by phone gets new meaning


Jayne O'Donnell

USA Today

December 19, 2007

Alan Brody, a 15-year-old jazz drummer and high school freshman, doesn't have the interest or time to hang out in shopping malls. So he browses the Internet on his cellphone, using a search service that has helped him find everything from Hanukkah gifts to computer software.

Brody, of Arlington, Va., also does mobile searches for his 55-year-old mother, and would send her pictures of items he sees in stores, except Sandy Brody says she "wouldn't know what to do with them."

"This manages the time looking, so I don't have to spend three hours shopping," Brody says of the Slifter service he uses on both his phone and home computer.

Parents may often shop at the same stores as their children these days, but few shop anything like their kids do. Teens and twentysomethings are twice as likely as their elders to use mobile devices for tasks other than talking. And they are far more likely to opt in for text promotions, mobile coupons and mobile search services.

The mobile facility of their young customers has also left retailers with a lot of catching up to do. Some major retailers, including Nordstrom (JWN) and Macy's (M) in some regions, don't have their full store inventories available for mobile searches, and some products pop up as available only online. Mobile coupons can't be scanned at the registers, which slows down the process. And shoppers using mobile devices often can't complete a transaction with a brick-and-mortar store on the devices.

"The kids, especially these 'digital millennials,' are out in front of the retailers," says Laura Evans, retail practice chief for the digital marketing agency Resource Interactive. Evans' company coined the term digital millennials to describe the technology savvy of Generation Y, generally considered those born between 1982 and 2000.

The 14-to-24-year-old members of Gen Y, those most invested in digital technology, "expect on-demand experiences," says Evans. "Part of 'on demand' is 'I can access retailers anytime, anywhere, and that's not limited because I'm not sitting at my computer.'

"They are definitely more comfortable with technology and are definitely pushing technology," she says. "They have used it since the beginning of their lives."

It's not that stores aren't trying to go higher-tech. Mobile retailing site mPoria is rapidly signing up retailers, going from eight to more than 130 since the start of 2007. Mobile couponing company Cellfire's discounts can now be used at more than 250 merchants, including retail and restaurant chains, up from 10 in January.

While mobile company Slifter helps shoppers find items in a geographic area, NearbyNow helps them search anywhere in its 200 member malls. All the mall retailers are part of NearbyNow for at least basic searches — for brands of jeans, but not individual styles or products, for instance — and more than 70% offer full access to their inventories. And retailers are experimenting with a variety of text-message campaigns to see what best draws in the young crowds.

Metropark, which targets teens to thirtysomethings with its casual clothing and music-oriented stores, is part of NearbyNow's network and used the service to test a text-message promotion earlier this month in San Francisco. Throughout the day, more than 10 plasma TVs around the store and in the windows flashed codes that shoppers could text to receive a "special offer." The dozens who did so received a free CD with a compilation of music mixed by Metropark that would usually come only with a $75 purchase.

Metropark CEO Renee Bell and colleagues decided to pursue text-message marketing after they attended a Gwen Stefani concert in April and saw how many young people were texting each other and having their messages appear on a giant screen by the stage.

"I do see this as the future," she says. Her customers are among "the leaders in this texting phenomenon." But she doesn't exactly understand the attraction of typing on tiny keyboards. "I don't text," says Bell, 46. "I don't know how they have the patience. It's just as easy to call." Bell says sending text promotions to a broader audience that includes regular customers would be more effective at reaching people who aren't in the stores or walking by them.

But it could also be a safety risk, as NearbyNow CEO Scott Dunlap learned last year. The company had to stop sending messages offering free items to the first people who showed up in stores because it was causing near-stampedes, and mall security was worried someone was going to get hurt.

Dunlap, 38, started the company two years ago after becoming frustrated on a shopping trip with his wife, who was looking for a pair of Ferragamo boots she saw in a magazine. "I thought, 'It sure would be convenient if I could pull (inventory information) up on a mobile phone,' " he recalls.

A mobile way of life

Brody balances his time studying and practicing with his jazz groups with shopping and amateur movie making. During a trip to Tysons Corner Center mall in McLean, Va., earlier this month, he used his cellphone to look for a few things on his list, which included tuxedo and Hawaiian print shirts for gigs, earring cases for his mother and younger sister, Ilana, plus a digital camera and backpack for Ilana

Despite his enthusiasm for the technology, using a really small screen to shop isn't without its frustrations, even if you're 15. Neither was the service.

A search for earring cases while sitting in the mall brought up only websites. No Hawaiian print shirts were found, and tuxedo shirts came up at the Macy's at a mall in the next town, not at the Macy's in the mall he was in. Still, Brody has found software he wanted at the Apple (AAPL) store and a backpack at an area Staples (SPLS) store using the service.

What's known as m-commerce — the ability to shop and buy using a mobile device — is still in its infancy.

While patient teens can and do buy products from websites using their cellphones, purchasing directly from stores where products are found using the search services is typically not possible.

"While the technology is there and phones are enabled to do a lot of these types of things, when it comes to using it to make a purchase, the infrastructures with retailers are not built or established yet," says Evans.

That's a point of contention among many young people.

"I wish that we had more ways to pay for things via your mobile, such as in stores like in other countries," says David Mancini, a 22-year-old student at the University of Akron who gets mobile coupons from Cellfire. "Just hold your phone, and it can be deducted from your bank account … kind of like a mobile wallet."

Philip Moussavi of Bethesda, Md., was recently able to do much of his Christmas shopping on his cellphone while at a movie he didn't like. He bought gifts ranging from apparel to electronics on mobile commerce company mPoria's site.

"You usually don't have the computer in front of you," says Moussavi, 16. "I have it in my room, but I'm not usually home."

What do you think of this?

Mobile devices also help young people stay abreast of their friends' views, which are more important to them than peer opinions are to the 30-and-older crowd. These other views are easily accessible through text messages and photos, as well as social-networking sites, including Facebook. Teens and twentysomethings' use of these sites are sometimes as much about retail as they are about relationships.

Mansi Trivedi, a 23-year-old advertising agency planner, says she regularly uses Facebook to help her make shopping decisions. "Groups help a lot, and so do friends' opinions," says Trivedi, who lives in Detroit. She takes pictures using her cellphone while shopping so she can upload them if necessary for group approval. She recently sent one of herself in a hat to a female friend in India to gauge her opinion before buying it.

How other teens and twentysomethings shop on the run:

•Stevie Morgan-Cline, 23, is planning a wedding while she attends law school and works part time. She used her cellphone and BlackBerry while looking for her wedding dress and making a recent car purchase, and puts them to use almost every time she's in a mall.

"Having mobile devices helps me shop and make big purchase decisions when I normally wouldn't have time to do so," says Morgan-Cline, of Columbus, Ohio. "Since most stores won't let me bring in a camera, I have taken to using my cellphone to take pictures, and then I send them to my BlackBerry so I can compare dresses while I am in different stores."

She'll even use her BlackBerry to compare online prices with store prices, and has found that with free shipping, it sometimes pays to buy it online while she's standing in the store. "When you are really researching a purchase, you don't have to wait to get to a computer. So it makes it easier to find deals," she says.

•Tapan Shatapathy, 27, has made shopping through his BlackBerry or iPhone practically a hobby.

The El Segundo, Calif., software product manager bought two TVs, four laptops, an Xbox, a PlayStation Portable, DVD box sets, routers and an extra hard drive, all on his mobile devices, monitoring sale prices through his multiple phones and e-mail boxes. He's got his e-mail set up so messages touting new deals get filtered into different folders, which he either watches like a hawk or ignores until it's time to go through and delete. "If you want a good deal, there's always a time limit or limited quantities," he says. "If you're not quick enough, you're done."

•Cutting out coupons is too much of a hassle for 17-year-old Caroline Nguyen of Orange, Calif. But like most young people, she loves getting a deal. She gets mobile coupons sent by Cellfire and shows the image to restaurants, including Wienerschnitzel and T.G.I. Fridays, to get, say, 99-cent fries. Nguyen says she'd love to have coupons to more restaurants and retailers.

"I think it could be something really big, because it's easier than cutting out coupons from the newspaper," she says.

Cellfire CEO Brent Dusing, 29, says he knew mobile devices were the way to reach other young people when he considered how attached they are to the gizmos. About 55% of 18-to-29-year-olds say they use only a mobile phone rather than a land line, and many teens including his younger brother rarely use e-mail, favoring text messages. Nearly 70% of Cellfire's users are under 35, and more than a quarter are 13 to 21.

"If you told most Gen Yer's, especially the teens, that you had to take one device away for a week — their PC (personal computer) or their cellphones — they would all choose to keep their cellphones," says mPoria CEO Dan Wright, who is 34.

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