The future is mobile

Retailers want your cellphone to be your guide, coupon book and wallet.

Now that e-commerce is well established, retailers and tech companies are ushering in a new kind of electronic shopping — by marrying bricks and mortar with mobile convenience. According to ABI Research, American consumers will spend $119 billion using their mobile devices by 2015, a huge jump from $1.2 billion in 2009. “Mobile is increasingly becoming the way people interact with each other and with information,” says John Jones, a retail expert at international ad agency R/GA. “The more retailers can deliver products, recommendations and discounts right to the customer, the more likely customers are to come back.”

The tools are rapidly multiplying. Last year, Google unveiled its Shopper app to compete with Amazon’s Price Check, Scandit and Shopsavvy. Like the others, Shopper allows users to search for products, compare prices and read reviews. It also identifies locations that have a desired item in stock and serves up ads for nearby retailers. Apps like Fastmall and Point Inside, meanwhile, help users navigate shopping centres with maps and in-mall directions. Geo-location apps and social networks are also adapting their “check-in” culture in ever new ways. Booyah’s MyTown mobile game, for example, teamed up with clothing retailer H&M for an in-game campaign last year that resulted in more than 800,000 consumer check-ins at H&M outlets. Chris Cunningham, CEO of Appssavvy, the New York???based firm that facilitated the H&M-Booyah deal, says retailers can use such apps to craft promotions that boost in-store traffic. “It will get easier to execute these programs as more people use location-based services and retailers get better educated about the opportunities.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity on the horizon is the spread of near-field communication. NFC chips essentially turn cellphones into credit or debit cards via short-range wireless technology. Just hold your phone up to a pay terminal and your goods are paid for. The technology is already widely used in Japan and Korea but is nascent in North America. However, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have partnered to build a mobile commerce network that will utilize smartphones and NFC, and Google’s latest Nexus S smartphone has NFC capability. Visa, meanwhile, has teamed with Texas-based DeviceFidelity to offer a product dubbed In2Pay, which makes NFC-enabled mobile payments available through major banks.

Not only does NFC allow consumers to pay via mobiles, but it lets merchants reach out to buyers, sending them discounts or product updates that consumers access with a tap, says R/GA’s Jones. “This can start to build in-store browsing preferences for customers the same way they expect online.”

And so, slowly, we may start to catch up with shoppers in Asia. Stores we patronize will know when we are in the area and send us sale information, suggested browsing routes based on our past purchases and verifications that items in our size are in stock. We’ll scan a product bar code to compare prices with other stores and read customer reviews. To pay, we will take the merchandise to a terminal and hold our phones up to it to redeem a discount and process a bank or credit card transaction. Fast, simple, efficient and chock full of interaction — all accomplished with the help of our new digital wallet.

Players to watch:

The Dutch firm’s software transforms a cellphone’s camera viewer into a local business portal — when you point it down a block, data about the stores appear layered on the viewer.

The U.K. grocery chain offers a range of mobile tools, including an app that allows users to generate shopping lists by scanning product bar codes and organizing them by store layout.