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Giving gone smart: Taking on holiday buying with smartphones

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 6:30 a.m. MST

Angie Green gets a jump-start on her Christmas shopping at Toys R Us in Salt Lake County on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. Despite the threat of a possible 'fiscal cliff,' customers say they'll spend the most money this holiday season since 2007. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Angie Green gets a jump-start on her Christmas shopping at Toys R Us in Salt Lake County on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. Despite the threat of a possible 'fiscal cliff,' customers say they'll spend the most money this holiday season since 2007. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Heather Lapham Kuhn can still remember the first online purchase she made. It was a set of night lights, in 1996. The second she clicked the last button, she realized the exhilaration of online shopping wouldn't go away anytime soon.

"It was when one of the first sites that was open to shop online," Kuhn said of her first online purchase. "It was very exciting."

She now does the majority of her shopping online, especially during the holidays. Between the convenience of shopping from home, the price-comparison apps and the free shipping deals, there are few things she needs to visit stores to buy.

According to the National Retail Federation, 51.8 percent of holiday shoppers will buy at least one item online. (Deseret News, National Retail Federation) According to the National Retail Federation, 51.8 percent of holiday shoppers will buy at least one item online. (Deseret News, National Retail Federation)

She likes "being able to think calmly about what I want and to not be getting pushed around," Kuhn said. "As (it) becomes an easier process, as they are offering free shipping and all of those good things, it's just more enticing to do it that way."

The holidays mean giving — the main source of joy, stress and anxiety all rolled into one. The Internet and mobile devices have forever changed the way shopping is done, whether they aid in research of products or allow for instant online purchase of gifts. People are still giving just as much as always during the holidays, but the medium for finding and purchasing those gifts has changed, first with online shopping and again via mobile shopping, aka smartphones.

Mobile shopping

Shopping online isn't exclusively happening behind home computers anymore; it is now everywhere people go, and continues to grow as one of the biggest, and now one of the most popular, ways for people to buy before giving.

This holiday season, for the first time ever, the majority of shoppers — 51.8 percent — will do at least a portion of their shopping online, according to Karen Edwards, professor and retail expert at the University of South Carolina.

"It's growing, it's the fastest growing sector for retailers," Edwards said of online shopping. "This is becoming the norm, at least part of all of our shopping is happening online. ... I think a big factor is the comparison shopping applications. Plus, the promotion of retailers and the convenience for the shopper."

During the holiday shopping season of 2011, 41 percent of people who used their mobile phones to help with shopping also made a direct purchase with them, according to a post-holiday study done by Google. Of those same shoppers with a smartphone, 46 percent researched an item on their phone, then went to the store to purchase it, and 37 percent researched items on their phone and also made the purchase online.

"There are more devices out there, more people are using them ... As people acquire more technology and become more comfortable with technology and online-based transactions, we will continue to see growth," Edwards told the Deseret News.

Apps in the aisles

Jenny Stinson's favorite accessory while holiday shopping is her iPhone, specifically the RedLaser application she can use for price checking right on the spot.

"It shows you the cheapest place to get it. ... It just compares against major stores and chains," Stinson said. "Usually comparing everything to Amazon is pretty reliable. ... It's usually a better price there, but if not I can just get it there in the store."

Stinson has done about 80 percent of her holiday shopping from her home computer and tablet, and the rest with the help of her phone.

Online couponing and deals via smartphone have become another huge aspect of holiday shopping, both online and brick-and-mortar, Edwards said. It is just another way for competition to be amped up for businesses, and to pronounce even more significant deals to give consumers a leg-up.

During this holiday season, 19.8 percent of tablet owners projected they would redeem coupons via their device, while 44.2 percent will research and compare prices using their tablet, according to research done by the National Retail Foundation, said Edwards.

This year, 53 percent of smartphone owners are projected to use their phone for research on gifts.

"You've got sites like Amazon that are offering a downloadable application where mobile device owners can download useful tools on their device to enhance their shopping experience online, where you can price check anything," Edwards said.

Brick-and-mortar stores are now more prone to experience "show-rooming," where the customer comes in to look around and is looking everything up online at the same time to find the best prices for products they find in the store, then going to order it online, she said. Many businesses are responding with price matching, if a customer finds a better price online with their phone.

Click it, buy it

"We've long-known that free shipping is the name of the game when locking in the online transactions," Edwards said. "It used to be used as a promotion, now it's a regular thing that consumers are coming to expect; the consumer is responding to these changes, and the retailers are responding."

The NRF has estimated that retailers overall will have a 4.1 percent growth in sales during the holiday season this year, with a 12 to 15 percent growth in online sales. The fact that the most significant sales growth continues to be online is important for retailers to understand and respond to, Edwards said.

The convenience factor of modern-day shopping comes into play when the Amazon website app can show Kuhn numerous other prices for the sweater she holds in her hands in the middle of a department store. Especially when it tells her she can get it purchased and shipped directly to her house for cheaper.

"I actually use it frighteningly regularly," Kuhn said of the Amazon app. "I do use my phone to price-check things as well. If I am in the store I use it to check things out."

Numerous factors continue to push online shopping into the limelight of the holidays. However Edwards doesn't not see the growth of mobile and online shopping as the product of successful advertising, but as more of a shift in the way people want to shop, and how retailers react.

"I don't think marketing and advertising is driving sales, it's a response to the consumer," she said. "We know consumers are going to shop, we want to make good profit and they can get the goods they need — it's the name of the game.

"Shopping is just kind of fun, especially with these new mobile devices and apps. And competition between retailers makes it a good experience for the consumers," Edwards said. "I think it's a win for the consumer."

Mandy Morgan is an enterprise intern for the Deseret News, reporting on values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying Journalism and Political Science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.

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