Google Inc. reports that the number of shopping searches it gets from cellphones has grown by 30 times in the past three years. Some retailers, including Best Buy, say they will even match prices at other retailers shown on cellphone screens. But not everyone: Wal-Mart is one of the retailers that will match only prices in a printed ad.
Price-comparison apps generally let users scan bar codes with their phone’s cameras and list comparative online prices. But the latest programs go well beyond that. Ms. Young’s favorite, TGI Black Friday—which is currently No. 3 on the iPhone free-app list—stores copies of leaked in-store flyers. She was able to get a Black Friday discount at Kmart a week early by showing a photo of a flyer at the register.
Milo.com, which collects real-time inventory data, is consolidating Black Friday deals from stores and lets consumers check which store nearby has a product in stock before they battle the crowds. Milo says it has direct data feeds into the automated inventory systems for stores representing 150 retailers—though it can’t tell you if people are lined up to buy something and haven’t yet paid.
Price-comparison apps can be a thorn in retailers’ sides, since they encourage shoppers to put products back on the shelf and buy them elsewhere. So retailers are throwing their weight behind apps that re-imagine phones as coupons and shopping games that—thanks to GPS sensors on many phones—know where shoppers are.An app called TheFind lets users keep track of both online and in-store searches in one place, creating a virtual gift list. Shane Parkins, 32, of Sacramento, Calif., uses the camera on his iPhone to scan the barcodes on products and then compares prices online and at stores nearby. “It is a good way to plan out where to go and where to avoid,” he says.
Location-based social networks have been around for a few years, but they are now starting to get serious interest from retailers, because of the recent entry of social-networking company Facebook Inc. Facebook recently added location “check-ins” for mobile users, as well as the ability, for merchants, to post discounts or coupons that shoppers can get if they virtually “check in,” or click online to show they’ve arrived at a store.
In one test, Gap Inc. earlier this month gave away 10,000 pairs of jeans to people who “checked in” at stores using Facebook. In many places, the free jeans ran out in minutes, so the retailer gave all other check-ins a 40% discount.
"The fact that not only users but also merchants are embracing this platform makes this the first truly mobile shopping season," says Emily White, Facebook’s senior director of local.
On Black Friday, expect mobile deals on Facebook Places, as well as more niche location-based social networks such as FourSquare. H&M and Toys “R” Us have deals lined up for Facebook check-ins, according to the company. J.C. Penney Co. says it is offering $10 off a $50 purchase if you check in with Facebook, FourSquare and BrightKite.
At RadioShack Corp., shoppers can get up to 20% off their purchases if they’re willing to play a bit of a game. They have to use Foursquare to check in first at a so-called holiday hero location—a gym, coffee shop or place of transit—and then at a RadioShack store. RadioShack social media manager Adrian Parker admits a mobile game isn’t for everyone but says the idea is to “engage with the consumers who are going to be out there on the street talking about your product and driving influence.”
A mobile app called ShopKick has signed up some of the largest American retailers, including Target, Best Buy, and Macy’s, for its loyalty program, which gives users points just for walking into stores. Those points can be converted into rewards such as gift cards.
Starting on Black Friday, ShopKick will hold a sweepstakes where shoppers could win prizes just for turning on the app in stores. It’s also offering deals you can redeem by showing your phone at the register.
The reward points and deals have hooked shoppers like James Crenshaw of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who recently used a ShopKick coupon. “The coupons are just getting better,” he says. “I assume they are going to be great on Black Friday.”
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at email@example.com