It used to be you had to research products and compare prices before you went to the store, but now if you have a smart phone you can do that while you shop.
This holiday season, more shoppers are using smart phones to help them find the best deals.
When he arrived at the Mall of America this past Saturday, Joshia Camara, 31, followed tweets from the mall to quickly grab one of the parking spaces reserved for Twitter followers, letting him get a faster start on his shopping here at the mall.
Camara's phone makes him a smart and efficient shopper, and he may be a model for what a typical shopper will be like in just a few years. And as he spotted bargains, he told friends who follow him of Facebook or Twitter.
"If I get a really good deal somewhere, I can update my status on Facebook and let my friends know," Camara said. "Or I can tweet about it."
At a bookstore, Camara thought about picking up a set of Harry Potter books. But he used a price comparison app on his smart phone to scan their bar code. The phone told him Target had a much better price, a difference of about $42.
"I would never have known that if it wasn't for bar code scanner," he said.
Camara could have ordered the books from the Target website, but he figured he'd go to a Target store instead.
CHANGING THE RULES OF RETAIL
Industry research indicates a quarter to a third of adults now have smart phones, phones capable of getting on the Internet just about anywhere. It seems a quarter or so of those smart phone owners are researching products and comparing prices while they shop.
The Mall of America, like other big shopping centers and major retailers, is trying to figure out how to engage customers on smart phones.
Spokeswoman Bridget Jewell said the mall has been offering gift certificates and other rewards to folks who check in electronically at the mall. They can use one of two services: Facebook Places or another service called Foursquare.
"We wanted to kind of test and see what happens if we offer an incentive," Jewell said. "Does that check-in base grow?"
The mall's neighbor, Richfield-based Best Buy, is aggressively exploring the potential of smart phones as a marketing and sales tool. Like a growing number of retailers, Best Buy has a website tailored to smart phones, as well as a smart phone app.
Best Buy also rewards shoppers who check in electronically at its Minnesota stores. They need an app called Shopkick on their phones that detects when a customer's smart phone enters a store. The app then gives the shopper credits toward gift certificates and other rewards.
At Best Buy, smart phone shoppers can also get detailed information about a product by scanning its QR code. The QR -- quick response -- code looks like some sort of hieroglyphic. In effect, it's a link to a website that you scan with your phone's camera.
Miles Sovell is the Mobile Manager at Best Buy's Eden Prairie store. He says all a customer has to do is take a picture with a smart phone of a product's QR code.
"And that's going to give you specific information about that device, as well as our online availability and promotions associated with that device," Sovell said. "And help compare it for you out there in the marketplace."
Noam Paransky, a retail analyst with Kurt Salmon Associates said it changes all of the rules of retail.
"Even when a customer is in your store in front of the item on your shelf you are still competing with your competitors, both brick and mortar and online," Paransky said. "It's almost like we've added a fourth dimension of retail, with the advent of these smart phone applications."
Paransky said retailers are just now learning how to connect with their consumers via smart phones. But before long, consumers are going to expect every retailer to have a mobile web site or smart phone app. Paransky predicts retailers will target shoppers when they're in competitors' stores. You might get a sales pitch from Walmart if you're in Target or an offer from Cub Foods if you're in Rainbow.
"Within 2011 and 2012, these apps are going to be a critical component of the shopping experience," he said.
Within a year, Paransky expects 40 percent of adults could have smart phones loaded with shopping apps. Some of those shopping apps have been downloaded millions of times this holiday season.