Shoppers with cells show and tell


Karen Williams and her siblings want to surprise their mother with something wonderful for Christmas, so Williams went to a Target store on a recent weekday morning to snap a picture of a television with her cell phone.

The 20-inch, flat-screen Magnavox with DVD and VCR included looked like something the family could agree on, Williams said, but just in case, she sent the picture to e-mail addresses around the Northeast.

"We've had arguments about this in the past," said Williams. "This way, no one can say, 'That's not the one we agreed on.' "

This year, cell phones are the must-have for the smart (or cautious) shopper. The phones are part personal shopper, part lifeline and part time-killer for those standing in line.

"It struck me the amount of people madly typing in their BlackBerry units, or using the digital camera options on their cell phones," said Brian Olson, director of marketing communications at Video Professor in Denver. "I'm buying my wife a ring for Christmas, and just sent my daughter ... digital pictures of two choices I'm thinking about. I'm in Denver, and she's in Atlanta. Our youngest daughter, who lives here in Colorado, has been assigned to take my hand and assist in the final decision."

And for those without cameras, cell phones are still invaluable for shopping consultation. Walk around a shopping mall and hear the chatter of shoppers who are reaching out to touch someone - and get confirmation that they're making good choices.

According to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association in Washington, a little more than 172 million Americans are wireless subscribers. But the wireless boom is not just an American phenomenon. In India, there are more cell phones than land lines. Russians spent $2 billion on cell phones last year, the same year China exported more than 95 million mobile phones.

In the U.S., the number of subscribers is up 30 million from last year, with ever-increasing gadgetry, including, but not limited to:

The aforementioned picture-taking option, which allows instant feedback. "Result?" says Lyndsay LaGree, of Motorola Inc. "On-the-go opinion polling!"

Mobile phones with even fancier video capabilities, which allow shoppers to record their most memorable consumer moment - or forgo a gift altogether, and simply send a real-time holiday greeting.

Phones with headsets, so shoppers can grab bargains with both hands.

So-called smart phones that allow shoppers to bank online - good for the consumer tempted to be extravagant, and ...

Programs that can be loaded into phones to give maps and directions, for the shopper who wants to avoid the frustration of being lost in Elf Land, said LaGree.

But it is the ability to send a photo around for confirmation that appeals to most consumers. Peter Shankman, CEO of the Geek Factory, a marketing firm in New York, recently sent around a picture of a BMW he was considering buying.

"One woman said, 'You're only 32. Is that the right time for a mid-life crisis?' " said Shank-man, though he still bought the car. He also knows one young woman who sent pictures of potential gifts to her parents' e-mail with the note, "Mom, I love this."

"I'm really curious to see whether in 100 years we start to evolve," Shankman said. "Do our thumbs become more active?"

And will we lose the ability to make decisions for ourselves?

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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