Retailers adapt as mobile device holiday shopping booms

NEW YORK ― When it comes to holiday shopping, more people are phoning it in, forcing retailers to embrace new ways to connect or else lose sales.

Lowe’s Companies, Best Buy and Toys R Us are among retailers making big changes to prepare for a wave of holiday shoppers who will use smart phones to research products, check rivals’ prices and make purchases.

“The shopping experience is in the consumer’s hands and you can’t fight where they’re going,” said Gihad Jawhar, vice president of Lowes.com, the website of the second-largest home-improvement company. “Retailers can either hop on the bus or get left behind. We are choosing the first option.”

Lowe’s is issuing more than 42,000 Apple iPhones to employees in more than 1,700 stores.

When shoppers are in Lowes stores scanning bar codes with their phones, reading product reviews and checking prices, employees can engage them better using iPhones to track down similar information.Staff can also check quickly if products are in stock or if items are available on Lowes’ website or another store nearby, and can often match or beat a price a consumer finds elsewhere via a smart phone.

Best Buy has 63 so-called connected stores in which employees have been given mobile devices and are encouraged to use their own smart phones to help shoppers research products and check inventory.

“Employees are empowered to make the decision to match a competitor price on the spot,” a spokeswoman for Best Buy added.

More than 40 percent of retailers this year have a policy of at least competing with lower online prices found through mobile comparisons. Ahead of last year’s holiday season, most retailers were still in denial about this trend, according to research firm RSR.

The mobile shopping boom is putting billions of dollars in sales up for grabs in an industry that is being pummeled by lackluster economic growth and weak consumer confidence.

U.S. retail e-commerce holiday sales will rise 17 percent to $46.7 billion in 2011, while total retail sales will grow about 3 percent this season, eMarketer forecast on Thursday.

But mobile commerce is growing even faster.

The 300 largest U.S. mobile merchants, led by Amazon.com Inc, will generate $5.37 billion in sales through mobile devices this year, more than double 2010, according to a recent survey by Internet Retailer.

A recent survey of shoppers by the National Retail Federation found that 40 percent own a smart phone and more than half of those people plan to use their device to research products or make a purchase this holiday.

The peak day for mobile holiday shopping is expected to be the second Sunday in December (Dec. 11 this year), according to PayPal, the online payments business owned by eBay Inc. That’s the last non-work day when orders will be shipped in time for Christmas.