Mobile Shopping's First Christmas

Retail technology expert Paula Rosenblum explains why smartphones will play a significant role this holiday season and beyond

U.S. consumers are shopping via cell phone more than ever before. According to Deloitte's 24th Annual Holiday Survey of retail spending and trends, published in October 2009, one in five shoppers plan on using a mobile phone to assist with holiday purchases, from researching prices and other product information to actually buying presents. Along with mass-market types like Target (TGT) and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), specialty retailers such as Tommy Hilfiger have developed mobile shopping apps just in time for the holiday season. Retails Systems Research managing partner Paula Rosenblum, whose expertise is in technology as its applied to retail, explains why the new shopping channel is here to stay.

Six months ago, it felt like shopping via phone was a far-flung idea, at least here in the U.S. What changed?

For one thing, retailers are more excited about the opportunity. Smartphones are getting smarter, and applications are getting easier to use. Today, you not only have the iPhone, but the Pre, myTouch, and the Droid. I think it goes back to being time-starved. If you're out and about and you have five minutes of idle time and remember that you forgot to buy that water filter or whatever, why not order it in 60 seconds via Amazon (AMZN)?

Why are these applications suddenly so much easier to use?

Developers are making them more Web-friendly. That's no mean trick because each phone has a different set-up. You create different applications for each phone.

How can retailers take advantage of yet another point-of-sale?

The good ones will start distributing coupons via their apps. They've got this pool of money that used to be dedicated to mass marketing. They should be using it to engage the consumer in new ways.

What kind of retailers will this platform really work well for?

For something like eBay (EBAY), it's a natural. You can now follow auctions no matter where you are. But I think any brand can benefit. At the end of the day, these things are powerful. In a way, the impulse purchase will become nonexistent. If you're in Neiman's and you see a Jones of New York sweater, but they don't have your size, you can now just search for it through a comparison shopping application and buy it over the Web. All of this can happen while you're still in the store. That's why retailers need to be present [on mobile]; they need to be one of the consumer's choices.

Do you think it will make pricing more competitive, too?

I don't think pricing can get much more competitive. It's more about finding new ways to grab the customer's attention.

Mobile shopping is still new in the U.S., but it's been popular in parts of Asia for quite some time. Why are we behind?

Americans are oddly resistant to new payment types. I guess it's a trust issue: fear of data breaches. But we'll get there eventually.

What would you say is the top reason to shop via mobile this season?

So many retailers have cut back on inventory and are at risk of running out of stock this year. This makes it possible to find what you need instantly.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.