Focus on: Social Media

Retailers have pulled out the stops this holiday season, especially when it comes to experimenting with cutting-edge digital technologies. But innovation shouldn’t be reserved for the holidays — it is something that should be infused into the shopping experience all year long.

“Consumers are cash-strapped this holiday season, and merchants are doing everything possible to get a share of what they’re willing to spend,” said Kevin Sterneckert, VP research for the consumer value chain at Gartner Research. “To stand out, many retailers are turning to highly innovative strategies to communicate with shoppers in new ways. These are tactics that can be easily executed any time of the year.”

For example, merchants are looking beyond just standard email marketing and newspaper ads to get the news out about their products. Sears and Kmart have introduced “virtual shopping walls” in high-traffic areas such as airports and movie theaters that provide two-dimensional quick response, or “QR,” codes for its top toy items.

When an image of a QR code is captured by a quick-response scanner or mobile phone camera, the user’s device is directed to a website with related digital information about the products to help them shop on the go.

“Shoppers are so time-pressed during the holiday season, and we’re always looking for ways to make it more convenient for them,” said Brian Hanover, spokesman, Sears Holdings. “We wanted to bring the store to them this year, and based on how successful the run goes, this is something we may do more of next year beyond just the holiday season.”

According to Gartner’s Sterneckert, it is easy to develop innovative promotions with QR codes. A QR code takes only a few minutes to build, and merchants have the flexibility to change the content it’s linked up to when new promotions come up.

“It’s a very fast way to reach customers, and retailers can have fun developing engaging campaigns that encourage people to learn more about products and shop on the go any time of year,” he added.

Although some retailers such as Target have built compelling apps around the holidays and gift giving in the past, retailers should take the time to make their apps worth downloading all year-round.

“The most effective apps enrich the customer experience, but many today just draw attention to deals happening in stores and online,” Sterneckert noted. “Retailers need to give shoppers a reason to keep and use the apps they download on their phones by including helpful features, such as allowing users to make a purchase, check inventory and look up store information.”

Although shoppers are extra budget-conscious around the holidays, many are interested in getting offers that benefit and meet their needs throughout the year. A mobile app called Shopkick rewards shoppers with offers just for walking into stores. Participating retailers such as Macy’s, Target and most recently, Old Navy, have a physical device in their stores that emits an audio tone not heard by the human ear and sends a message to a shopper’s phone when they walk inside a location. The app encourages shoppers to visit items that are on sale, and customers collect points for these behaviors that can be redeemed for discounts.

“One-to-one offers like this will become increasingly more popular in the next few years,” predicted Sterneckert. “Retailers can offer customers incentives for just visiting locations and reward their behavior with loyalty points that give them the notion that they’re working toward something. Adding this type of innovation to marketing will not only make a difference during the holiday season but all year through.”