Sept/Oct 2012

Let me guess: the last time you were undecided about buying something, you pulled out your mobile phone and asked a friend or the Internet for help. You’re not alone. During the 2011 holiday shopping season, 52% of mobile phone owners gathered information about a potential purchase with their phone, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Of these mobile phone owners, 38% phoned a friend, 24% read product reviews, and 25% compared prices online, in essence turning their phones into the shopping equivalent of “lifelines” on the TV game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” One in five price checkers ultimately bought the item online, turning big-box stores into showrooms where people go to look, but not buy. Shoppers check out the merchandise in the physical store, but then choose to spend elsewhere.

With the 2012 holiday shopping season around the corner, it’s time to consider which mobile app you might use to ease this year’s shopping experience. These apps provide coupons, discounts, and reward points, recommend complimentary or on-sale items, route you through the store, and can even complete your check-out when you’re done, with the purchase charged to an on-file credit card. While none of these apps integrate with a mobile wallet, Shopkick’s partnerships with Visa and MasterCard and Foursquare’s with American Express surely herald mobile-wallet integration on the horizon.

When I last surveyed the mobile shopping landscape in November 2011, it was dominated by Foursquare and Facebook Places, which pushed offers based on user check-ins that were validated by GPS or Wi-Fi (Places has since exited the shopping arena).

Since then, predicted “check-in fatigue” has set in: Stopping for five minutes to snap and upload a photo of your farmer’s market to Foursquare has mostly lost its charm. Automated check-in that’s secure, validated, and 100% user-controlled are the goals of both Shopkick and Raging Mobile.

Shopkick automates check-ins with ceiling-mounted emitters just inside the door of participating retailers that send out an inaudible tone that their app can hear. When the shopper walks into the store or buys promoted products, Shopkick rewards them with “kicks.” Kicks can be exchanged for rewards ranging from a $25 retailer gift card to an around-the-world cruise (for “only” 6.25 million kicks).

Raging Mobile goes for the gold standard in check-in integrity by requiring the shopper’s mobile phone to be swiped near a reader. Raging Mobile wants to be the “Switzerland of check-in,” per Raging Mobile CEO E.Y. Snowden, by sharing its secure, undeniably opted-in check-ins with other mobile apps authorized by the user.

Shopping apps Groupon and AT&T ShopAlerts skip the check-in and use GPS location to push offers whenever an opted-in user is within a specified distance from a retailer’s store. Indoors, startup iSign and goliath Google push offers using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Anaheim, Calif.-based iViu Technologies gives Wi-Fi a different spin, as demonstrated at one of Orange County’s premier retailers of wine, beer, spirits, and cigars: Hi-Time Wine Cellars. Hi-Time decided to harness the smartphone when it watched its customers wander through the store reading the Hi-Times newsletter on their phones, per Toby Sharp, Hi-Time’s creative director.

The store installed a dozen or so sub-$100 “Intelligent Digital Tags,” low-power Wi-Fi access points, throughout the 24,000-sq.-ft., multistory store that interact with the Hi-Time smartphone app downloaded from Google Play or iTunes. The app follows the shopper through the store, displaying nearby departments, recommended products, and specials. Users can then click through to reviews, recommendations, and product information.

AisleBuyer and Aisle411 also want to rule the store. AisleBuyer customers engage with the app when they’re considering a purchase by scanning product barcodes for information or to put it onto their shopping list—or into their shopping cart once they’re in the store. AisleBuyer recommends products based on preferences and cart items, and alerts shoppers to nearby deals. When finished, users check out with their phones and pick up their receipts on their way out the door.

Aisle411 also begins engaging customers before they enter the store with a smart shopping list that can pull recipe ingredients, support meal plans and dietary preferences, and integrate with online shopping lists such as ZipList. Aisle411 CEO Nathan Pettyjohn says, “Aisle411 focuses on enhancing everything from when the shopper begins planning their shopping trip to when they check out.” Primarily deployed in grocery stores, Aisle411 logically routes shoppers through the store, alerts them to specials, and recommends items. A shopper who bought pasta might be notified: “Marinara sauce, 2 for 1. Upper left.”

Both Aisle411 and Walmart’s new shopping app are among the frontrunners in “omnichannel” marketing. Omnichannel programs engage the shopper early in the purchasing cycle and maintain engagement all the way through check out, instead of losing focus to third parties at critical points. With tight links between with the Walmart iPhone and iPad apps, users can create shopping and wish lists, keep a running tab, and check on a product’s availability. Shoppers can build their shopping list by scanning barcodes and speaking or typing product names, and can buy items from with one click on their iPad.

The Walmart iPhone app takes over once the shopper enters the store, displaying the shopping list, keeping a running tally of products, and showing items’ aisle locations. Shoppers can do price checks, call up information from QR codes, and access “Local Ads:” a digital version of the store’s weekly circular listing featured products and specials.

Which app should you use this holiday season? Start by asking your favorite stores which apps they promote or get traffic from. Lots of malls offer shopping apps: Look for posters near major entrances or call the management office.

Or just pick an app, download it, and see what offers pop up. Whichever shopping app you choose, get started right away. Once Black Friday hits, the offers will start flying so fast your head will spin. That’s no territory for a rookie.

Laurie Lamberth helps to connect companies and technologies to passionate and engaged customers through strategic marketing and business development. Learn more about Laurie’s consultancy and browse her prior publications at

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