How Mobile Tech Could Change the Way We Shop (And 3 Apps to Try This Holiday Season)

In addition to cold weather and higher gas bills, November brings us full swing into the holiday shopping season. Black Friday is the big day, of course, but other shopping holidays have popped up on the calendar, especially for online shopping. Even beyond that, retailers are making efforts to entice consumers to buy in other ways—particularly through their smartphones.

Got a smartphone? Not everybody does, but the numbers have been rising. According to a survey by Pew Research Center released in July 2011, 35 percent of all American adults own smartphones. Of those smartphone owners, 87 percent use their phones for Internet and email, and 25 percent say they mostly go online using their phone rather than a computer.

So what does this mean for businesses? Basically, that a significant number of consumers regularly, and sometimes predominantly, use their phones for Internet access—including visiting company websites and even shopping. Consider these examples of companies taking advantage of mobile technology to target consumers:

  • For the holiday season, customers can animate their Starbucks coffee cups by downloading an augmented reality app to their smartphones. The app works on the company’s red holiday cups and 47 other objects in Starbucks stores, such as bags of coffee, and features five different animations to unlock. Customers can then share snapshots of the animations on Facebook, send “eGifts” to friends, and use the app to find other Starbucks promotions during the holidays. Presumably, Starbucks hopes the app will draw more people to their stores, whether for an Eggnog Latte or a Christmas gift.

  • Amazon’s new mobile app, called Flow Powered by Amazon, also employs augmented reality technology, but here it’s used to recognize an item by its barcode or just by what it looks like (the cover of a book or DVD, for example). Customers are then able to read reviews and purchase the product on Amazon through the app. The app also lets you share your searches on Twitter, Facebook, and through email. Additionally, customers can watch trailers and previews for some products.

  • Walmart has created a mobile app that lets customers create shopping lists, which they can then use to manage their shopping budgets and find items in Walmart stores. Adding items to these lists will lead customers to related coupons and promotions. Customers can also scan barcodes, share product reviews, and use Apple’s Siri voice command in combination with the app. According to Walmart, the mobile app takes advantage of the extensive inventory systems used by stores to give consumers access to better product information. The company views the app as a kind of Walmart loyalty card, through which customers can find discounts, get recommendations, and develop a relationship with the company.

As evidenced by mobile apps like these and the increasing number of smartphone users, the retail landscape is changing. What will future shoppers—and stores—look like? Will we be making shopping lists with apps like Walmart’s, or will we be heading into big box stores just to scan everything to see if it’s cheaper on Amazon? Mobile devices and technology will surely change the way consumers approach shopping, but businesses, too, need to start thinking now about how the future will shape their marketing strategies for brick-and-mortar stores as well as online shopping destinations.

So, what do you think? Smartphone users, do you shop on your phone? Have you ever used these apps, or apps like them? How do you think mobile technology will change the way we shop, both online and in stores?

 Image credit to adactio.

Rachel Hamsmith

When not writing for the blog, Rachel is a data entry specialist at QLP. She spends most of her free time consuming a variety of geeky TV shows, movies, and books, as well as funny cat videos and other Internet oddities. Otherwise, she moonlights as an editor for a literary magazine and tries to spend as much quality time as she can with friends and family. You can also connect with Rachel on Google+.


  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    I’ve been using the Starbucks app to collect the characters (by the way, you don’t get anything once you collect them all, so that’s a huge bummer), but I wouldn’t say that I’ve been into the stores more often then usual. Then again, I got Starbucks a lot, so I might not be the best person to judge.

    I don’t do a lot of shopping on my smartphone. Only if I’m away from a computer and it absolutely cannot wait. But I can see how apps like these can make the techy-savvy and deal-getter shopper enjoy pure shopping joy. Big brands are going to need to release more apps like Walmart, because currently I find a lot of the big box store apps pretty useless for good online shopping. I usually have to go to the full site and at that point, I would rather just get on my computer.

    • Rachel

      Bummer about not winning anything by collecting the Starbucks characters! Would be nice to at least get a coupon from all that hard work. 🙂

      I think you’re right about more big box stores needing to up the ante on their own shopping apps; mobile shopping won’t become popular until it’s an easier process for the consumer. But it’s really interesting to watch what shopping apps are popping up and what that could mean for the future of shopping in general. Only time will tell!

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        I’d love a coupon. I ran around a store scanning the coffee beans and signage, and I even stealthily scanned a cup right before a barista grabbed it to make a drink. I know that I’m not entitled to anything, but a coupon would at least be nice. 🙁

  2. Jill Tooley

    Awesome blog, Rachel. Although I’m still rocking an iPhone from 2008, I do enjoy the apps I have. It just sucks because my phone is so old it doesn’t support the new iOS upgrade, which means I can’t get access to many newer apps (including all the ones you mentioned here). [Sad face]

    The Starbucks app looks crazy cool — it’s a cute idea to engage fans! I’d obviously use Amazon’s WAY more because I’m always comparing store prices to Amazon prices before making a purchase. That’s an even more convenient way to do it! 🙂

    Have you heard of an app called SpotCrime? It’s innovative but kind of creepy. Essentially, it lets you see criminal activity that occurred at your current location…so if you were standing on a Chicago street and fired it up, you’d be able to tell exactly where crimes happened in the area you’re standing in. What’ll they think of next?

    • Rachel

      I feel like the Amazon app is both awesome and not awesome, at least from the perspective of other businesses. It basically lets you treat any brick-and-mortar store as a way to window-shop through Amazon, which I’m sure those stores don’t appreciate! But yeah, as a consumer, I’m definitely all on board for that app. Now I just need to acquire a smartphone … 🙂

      Yikes, that SpotCrime app does sound pretty creepy! Though I could maybe see its usefulness if you were apartment-hunting and wanted a sense of the crime rate in the neighborhood. And it would actually be quite cool if it showed you crime from, say, the ’30s and ’40s, so you could see what mobster deals went down on your street or something. Lots of potential there!

  3. Jenna Markowski

    I think that the augmented reality stuff is really cool, and the Amazon app would be useful, but I just don’t think I would ever be inspired enough to spend that much extra time in a store going on a scanning scavenger hunt. I have a smartphone, but I hardly even use it even for texting and calling, let alone using fancy apps. I guess I like the idea of all of that cool stuff much more than I actually like it. Usually my phone takes forever to load anything, and I would probably get fed up before I could reap the benefits of the app.

    Besides, something about using my phone for online shopping feels really sketchy to me. So even if I used the Amazon app to compare prices, I would probably wait to buy it on my computer at home anyways.

    • Rachel

      “So even if I used the Amazon app to compare prices, I would probably wait to buy it on my computer at home anyways.”

      That’s probably what I would do, too–though I’m so indecisive about buying things, and it takes me so long to actually make a purchasing decision, that perhaps I’m not the best example of the typical American shopper. 🙂 I don’t think I would use the app on every item I saw in the store, but maybe I’d use it on items I want to see in person before buying cheaper online, like a TV or some other expensive gadget.

      I agree, though, that the success of mobile shopping is going to depend on how each individual prefers to use his/her smartphone, and whether enough people are comfortable using their phones to make purchases for the idea to be profitable. Also, how good the technology is–if your phone loads too slowly, then it’s definitely not going to be a good option for all these apps! But it’ll be interesting to see what kind of conversations we’re having next holiday shopping season or further into the future, and whether mobile shopping turns out to be just a fad or a genuinely new way of doing things.

  4. Amanda

    I’m very new to the smart phone & app worlds, and have no experience using apps like these, and have not used my phone to purchase anything yet. But I downloaded the free “Out of Milk” app the other day, and wow, that thing is so awesome! You use it to keep lists of things like groceries or Christmas gifts, etc. It guesses what you want as you type it, so make my list was soo easy! You can even scan bar codes, and it will add the product name to the list. Crazy cool! =)

    • Rachel

      The “Out of Milk” app sounds pretty cool! Definitely something I would use. I know there are several apps out there that give you the ability to scan barcodes, and I’m sure that’s a super useful ability to have, especially when creating a shopping list. Glad to hear you found one that works for you and that you’re enjoying your new smartphone experiences! 🙂

  5. Eric

    SpotCrime would’ve come in handy for those guys in “Horrible Bosses.” Fortunately, their “NavStar” guide, Gregory made do by statistically reporting the area with the highest amount of car-jackings.

    Neat post, Rachel. I don’t have a smartphone, but I’m sure I’ll finally get one to one when my upgrade comes in January (how else am I going to play Angry Birds?!?!). That Amazon app alone sounds really useful, and hopefully – by making comparable pricing easily accessible – it’ll serve as incentive for more stores to offer competitive prices.

    • Rachel

      Great point about the Amazon app potentially leading to more competitive prices in physical stores. That would definitely be a great side effect of shopping apps, at least for consumers anyway. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Eric!

      • Amanda

        I agree, the Amazon app looks pretty cool. And I can tell you, Angry Birds is awesome!!!!! =)

  6. Jen

    Cool post Rachel! I sadly live in the stone age and don’t have a smart phone. But if I did I would totally check these apps out! The Wal-mart app and the app Amanda mentioned sounds pretty cool. I love making lists, sometimes I uses them and sometimes I don’t, but I love just making them for some reason. That is the type of app I would use all the time!

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