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Mobile beginning to dominate holiday shopping

Gregory Karp
Chicago Tribune
Shopping for the holidays? More are going mobile.

With Americans spending significant portions of their waking hours looking at a smartphone or tablet, perhaps it's no wonder that's the way many will shop for the holidays too.

This season, for the first time, mobile devices will overtake desktops on Thanksgiving Day to drive the majority of online shopping visits and nearly one-third of online sales, according to Adobe, which tracks online transactions at the largest 100 U.S. retailers.

Although the desktop is expected to edge out mobile for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, online Christmas shopping is decidedly trending toward portable devices.

Mobile devices could account for more than 40 percent of transactions this holiday season, said Neil Stern, senior partner at Chicago-based McMillanDoolittle.

"The number of transactions that are initiated on mobile is growing incredibly fast," Stern said. "This puts a value on immediacy and in making the shopping experience more seamless."

Americans will be spending at least part of the average $806 per holiday shopper on the relatively small screens of their smartphones. More than one in five smartphone owners, 21.4 percent, will use their device to buy holiday merchandise this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That's the highest since the group added the question to its annual survey in 2011. Customers will also be researching products, checking their availability and looking up retailer information on their phones more than ever before, it said.

Similar trends are seen for tablet owners, 34.5 percent of whom will make a purchase on the device this shopping season, the retail federation said.

A high-profile acknowledgment of the shift to mobile devices came from megaretailer Wal-Mart, which this year released its highly anticipated Black Friday door buster deals early, Nov. 12, only through its smartphone app.

"We believe mobile is the bridge that really connects the two capabilities of our digital and physical worlds," said Michael Bender, Wal-Mart's chief operating officer of global e-commerce.

He said Wal-Mart expects 75 percent of its online traffic this holiday season to come from mobile, as opposed to computer Web browsers. Wal-Mart expects some 210 million visits to its app during November and December, up from 15 million "just a few years ago," Bender said. "So you can really see the shift that's taking place," he said.

Target said that through three-quarters of this year, its digital channel sales grew 29 percent, with mobile driving that growth.

Many retailers are using their mobile apps to connect with customers in specialized ways.

For example, Amazon said it will offer app-only deals released 2-9 p.m. daily from Thanksgiving through Dec. 9. Last year, total holiday sales from the Amazon app doubled in the U.S., with Black Friday having the fastest growth in mobile shopping, it said. This year, Amazon will allow holiday shoppers to get a notification to their mobile device when certain deals go live.

Kmart this week refreshed its mobile app, which now offers push notifications of Bluelight Specials, coupons exclusive to the app and the ability to manage layaway items.

Leena Munjal, senior vice president of customer experience and integrated retail at Kmart owner Sears Holdings, said mobile's share of Kmart's online sales doubled over last year. "Mobile continues to play an important role in the shopping mix," she said.

Wal-Mart's app not only highlights door-buster deals but shows their store availability, along with customer reviews. It also allows users to create a holiday shopping wish list and share it. The list can dynamically update to reflect that someone has already bought that item, so Grandma and Aunt Marge don't buy a child the same gift off the list.

Mobile shopping doesn't always substitute for bricks-and-mortar shopping. Sometimes they work in concert, with several retailers integrating their apps with their in-store pickup procedures — for example, alerting store employees that you're in the store or at a curbside pickup location and ready to receive an item you ordered online.

Ordering online, whether via desktop or mobile app, and later picking up the item in a physical store is growing and is another outcrop of mobile shopping's popularity.

A National Retail Federation survey showed that of those who plan to shop online, 46.5 percent say they will take advantage of retailers' pick-up-in-store or ship-to-store options.

And overall, mobile options are helping make Christmas shopping a digital experience. Nearly 90 percent of shoppers are planning to go online at some point during the upcoming holiday weekend, according to a Deloitte survey.

"The digital influence is likely to touch nearly every moment in the shopper's journey this holiday season," said Rod Sides, retail and distribution practice leader at Deloitte.

Mobile habits of the Chicago shopper

•76 percent of Chicago smartphone owners plan to use their phone to help with holiday shopping, compared to a national average of 78 percent. Sixty-nine percent of Chicago tablet owners plan to use it to help in holiday shopping, versus a 72 percent national average.

•51 percent of Chicago shoppers will engage in showrooming, or visiting a store and later searching for best prices online, compared with 52 percent nationally.

•71 percent of Chicagoans will be webrooming, or checking out an item online before going to a store to make a purchase, compared with 69 percent nationally.

•50 percent of Chicagoans own tablets. The national average is 56 percent.

SOURCE: Deloitte 2015 Holiday Survey, Chicago Market Results

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