Updated Friday, November 23, 2012 at 12:16 AM
This Black Friday, retailers are trying to lure shoppers away from the Internet, where they have increasingly been shopping to avoid the madness, and back to the stores. The bait is technological tools that will make shopping on the busiest day of the year a little more sane — and give some shoppers an edge over their competition.
Those with smartphones in hand will get better planning tools, prices and parking spots. Wal-Mart has a map that shows shoppers exactly where, in all 4,000 stores, the top Black Friday specials can be found. A Mall of America Twitter feed gives advice on traffic and gifts, and the Macy's app sends special deals for every five minutes a shopper stays in a store.
"The crazy mad rush to camp out, and the crazy mad rush to hit the doorbusters have really made people think, 'I'm just going to stay home on Black Friday,' " said Carey Rossi, editor-in-chief of ConsumerSearch.com, a review site. "This is going to invite some people back and say, 'You know what? It doesn't have to be that crazy.' "
Part of the retailers' strategy is to slap back at online stores such as Amazon.com, which last year used apps to pick off shoppers as they browsed in physical stores. But the stores are also recognizing that shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving need not require an overnight wait in line, a helmet and elbow pads. A smartphone gives shoppers enough of an edge.
"This takes away that frantic Black Friday anxiety," said Lawrence Fong, co-founder of BuyVia, an app that sends people price alerts and promotions. "While there's a sport to it, life's a little too short."
Denise Fouts, 45, who works repairing fire and water damage in Chandler, Ariz., uses apps including Shopkick, Target's app and one called Black Friday.
"There still are going to be the crowds, but at least I already know ahead of time what I'm going specifically for," Fouts said.
Last week, Macy's released an update to its app with about 300 Black Friday specials and their location. In the Herald Square store, for instance, the $49.99 cashmere-sweater specials will be in the Broadway side of the fifth-floor women's department.
"With the speed that people are shopping with on Black Friday, they need to be really efficient about how they're spending their time," said Jennifer Kasper, group vice president for digital media at Macy's.
When shoppers keep the app open, Macy's will start sending special deals to the phone every five minutes. The deals will not be advertised elsewhere.
Wal-Mart has had an app for several years but recently introduced an in-store mode, which shows things such as the current circular or food tastings when a shopper is near a certain location. Twelve percent of Wal-Mart's mobile revenue comes from when a person is inside a store.
For Black Friday, the app will have a map of each store, with the precise location of the top sale items — so planners can determine the best way to run.
"The blitz items are not where you think they would be, because for traffic reasons, maybe the hot game console is in the lawn-and-garden center," said Gibu Thomas, senior vice president for mobile and digital for Wal-Mart Global eCommerce.
Target is also testing a way-finding feature on its app at stores that include some in Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles. If a shopper types in an item, the app will give its location.
Other app makers are betting that shoppers want apps that pull in information from a range of stores.
RedLaser, an eBay app, lets shoppers use their phones to compare prices and recently started using location data to give shoppers personalized promotions when they walk into stores, including items not on store shelves at Best Buy, for instance. RetailMeNot, which offers eCommerce coupons, has offline coupons that will pop up on users' cellphones when they step near 500 malls today.
"Consumers are not going to download 40 different apps for 40 different stores," said Cyriac Roeding, co-founder of Shopkick, a location-based app that gives shoppers points, redeemable for discounts or gifts, when they walk into stores or scan certain items.
Shopkick is publishing what it calls a little black book with the top doorbusters. Shoppers will earn extra points and rewards, such as earbuds at Sony stores, for shopping today.
Adding an app that provides rewards or discounts to the mix gives offline retailers a defense against Amazon, Roeding said. And the technology use has become mainstream: Shopkick's average user is a 27-year-old mother in the Midwest.
Search by product
At Westfield, which has 47 malls nationwide, a new app lets people search by product, to see which stores in the mall carry it and what their prices are. The app provides turn-by-turn walking directions, voice search for questions such as the location of the nearest restroom, and Black Friday promotions.
"Shoppers are creatures of habit and don't necessarily want to try new ways, but if we expose them to new stores or ways to get there, that's well-received," said Alan Cohen, executive vice president for marketing at Westfield.
There are also plenty of deal-based apps for the shopping frenzy, including a Black Friday app by BradsDeals, TGI Black Friday and the BFAds.net Black Friday app. BradsDeals.com has published deals online for 11 years but first offered an app last year, when 250,000 people used it. This year, about 50 percent more people are downloading it, said Brad Wilson, founder of BradsDeals.
The apps make shoppers smarter — and saner, Wilson said.
Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., is focusing its technology on areas that particularly frustrate shoppers: such as parking and finding gifts for relatives.
On the mobile app, people will be able to look at a parking map color-coded by how full that parking area is. If people text the name of their parking level, the mall texts back telling them which door to exit from so they can find their cars after shopping. The @mallofamerica Twitter handle, which has two extra people answering queries this year, will also post traffic advice and answer questions such as: "Is there a Panda Express here?" or "What should I buy my 5-year-old niece?"
TARGET / NYT
The Target smartphone app, above, is used to lure shoppers.
Macy's has a Black Friday app, left, to view specials.