December 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

Whether retailers like it or not, consumers use smartphones in stores to check prices

Store retailers have no choice but to participate in the trend of consumers using mobile devices in stores to compare prices with other retailers over the web, a new study says. For example, stores can place QR codes in product displays to let shoppers get more details and provide mobile apps to extend special in-store offers.

Like the old saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And that's what experts are advising store retailers to do regarding consumers' increasing use of smartphones to shop in stores. A big reason smartphone-wielding consumers use their phones in stores is to comparison shop, while hunting for coupons or discounts on their phones.

"This behavior is growing so quickly that retailers have to pay attention because this will be commonplace in a year or two," says Candace Corlett, president of New York-based marketing consultants WSL/Strategic Retail.

Roughly half of all smartphone owners use their devices while shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores, a 21 percentage point increase from a year ago, a new report from WSL/Strategic Retail says. Among the main reasons consumers pull out their phones inside stores are to compare prices (56% of those using their phones), taking pictures of products (53%) and seeking coupons or discounts (46%), the study says.

Retailers have many ways to entice store shoppers to complete their purchases, Corlett says. For instance, next to a product's price retailers can place QR codes that shoppers can scan with their phones to access more information. QR codes are a form of 2-D bar code that links the physical world—such as a code on a product or a sign—to the mobile realm, such as a site with customer reviews or videos.

The report also found that 35% of consumers who have downloaded a mobile shopping app say they did so to receive in-store deals and sales, while 33% say apps enable them to read QR codes or scan bar codes for product information, and 28% use apps to navigate stores.

Social media is also becoming more important for stores as well as e-commerce. The percentage of shoppers looking for social media-exclusive offers good in either stores or online increased 50% year over year. "Consumers who Like a brand expect to feel like they're part of an exclusive club and to get rewards, promotions or coupons," Corlett says.

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