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Mobile Could Be Real-Time Game-Changer For Black Friday Shopping

While Black Friday has traditionally kicked off the holiday shopping season by giving consumers exciting in-store offers, this year, industry experts suggest the real-time access consumers can find via smart phones could be a potential threat to the usually-high expectation for in-store traffic.

Up to 138 million people plan to shop Black Friday weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), higher than the 134 million people who planned to do so last year, according to a preliminary Black Friday shopping survey conducted for the National Retail Federation by BIGresearch. The survey, which was just released yesterday, found that approximately 60 million people say they will definitely hit up brick and mortar stores. On the contrary, another 78 million will wait to see if the bargains are worth braving the cold and the crowds.

The ability to “wait and see,” or capitalize on the online deal assortments via Cyber Monday, have previously been obsolete, but the mobile phone is giving customers an additional channel through which to search, compare and shop.

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“Mobile is probably the most interesting and game-changing technology that’s going to and is hitting retail, and will do so for the next decade,” said Fiona Dias, EVP of Strategy & Marketing, GSI Commerce. “We’re just starting to wrap our minds on how it totally changes retail store shopping, but it’s both exciting and frightening.” Dias said that although it’s a great game-changer as customers are empowered with web site information now at the point of purchase, mobile still has its drawbacks. Pointing to a “crowd intelligence” concept, Dias said shoppers will navigate in groups and leverage social networks like Twitter to inform their network of friends about out of stocks via mobile.

“The power that customers are going to have to change their purchase decision on the fly [on Black Friday] is going to make it very difficult for retailers to keep people in line at their stores,“ Dias said.

The Price War: It’s On!

While discounted big-ticket items have long been the carrot bringing consumers out early on Black Friday, the mobile phone is increasingly making it easy for consumers to price compare at any time and anywhere. Even more so than the rest of the year, this prime time shopping season challenges retailers to compete in areas other than price.

The demand for mobile commerce is alive and well in time for the holiday shopping season. Usablenet, provider of web, mobile applications, kiosk and assisted solutions has launched 16 retail mobile web sites and features in time for holiday.  Macy’s, Crate & Barrel and Neiman Marcus are motivating customers with “wish lists” and “gift registries” to expand the functionality of m-commerce sites.

“This idea of productivity — [being able] to compare prices without having to go to mortar stores — that’s an important aspect of [Black Friday shopping], said Jason Taylor, VP Global Product Strategy, Usablenet. “Retailers have to target those people while shopping, with coupons or special offers for a particular time. What might be interesting in mobile is the instant ability to get information.”

The Quest For Market Share

Taylor said the interest among retailers to enter the m-commerce space has nearly doubled since last year. Moreover, the desire for a straightforward purchase is expanding into a more branded experience. As a result of the price battle, retailers are seeking a richer UI and brand experience, Taylor said.

“In the past, retailers wanted very simple and direct mobile experiences for buying; now we’re seeing desire for advanced galleries and images so people can really look through products,” Taylor said. “It’s about allowing the merchandise to speak for itself, particularly with apparel. Mobile has to support the same branding experience and promotions that the regular web site and store does. Think of them as two integrated channels.”

Taylor said the traffic spike among Usablenet’s mobile retail clients was just as strong on Thanksgiving as it was on Black Friday last year, indicating that shoppers are shopping via mobile on Thanksgiving in addition to their in-store shopping on Black Friday.

The early messaging around Black Friday is ultimately a rush to the finish, as retailers are looking to grab market share as early in the shopping game as possible. “Retailers are extremely competitive within the seven-to-ten day period prior to the Black Friday event,” said Bob Gingras, a VP at Acquity Group.They’re looking to se what consumers are actually doing — are they willing to buy earlier? They’re looking at first strike competitive advantage. You’ll have mindshare if you can get there first. [Retailers are using early promos] as a marketing engine to drive additional sales through Black Friday.”

One e-Tailer echoed the sentiment. Expressionery.com, an online personalized stationary retailer, has pushed out early deals for Black Friday to extend the period of shopping and finish out the year strong.  “Since we’re purely online, we have followed traditional retail calendar in the past, but we have the freedom of not having an actual storefront attached to a calendar,” said Kristine Smith, Marketing Manager at Expressionery.com. “We thought we’d see what happened if we tried to push up the Black Friday and Cyber Monday offerings this year and extend that period to more than four days.” Smith said her company is leveraging social media and email marketing to message special promotions and door buster deals.

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