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Technology key as retailers see Thanksgiving weekend surge

BY PATRICK GALLAGHER AND JENNIFER BISSELL

Black Friday

Retailers jump-started the holiday season, as Black Friday began on Thanksgiving for many retailers and Cyber Monday featured record nationwide sales that were bolstered by a major uptick in mobile transactions.

IBM Corp. reported online sales generated on Cyber Monday were up 30 percent compared to a year ago, while economists projected total holiday season sales are likely to end up about 4 percent over the 2011 mark.

Initial reports from Connecticut merchants and retailers have been encouraging, said Timothy Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association.

“We’re off to a great start,” said Phelan, whose organization represents about 500 merchants with a combined 2,000 Connecticut locations. “Now we just have to keep that momentum going.”

Phelan said the national retailers with locations in Connecticut reported “very good” Thanksgiving weekend sales, adding that small business owners have also indicated positive results.

He added, though, that the real test comes the weekend after Thanksgiving.

After spending slowed significantly in 2008 and to a lesser extent in 2009 and 2010, “It appears that consumers like what they see and are ready to go out and shop,” Phelan said.

Compared to 2011 sales, online transactions were up 17.4 percent on Thanksgiving Day, 20.7 percent on Black Friday and more than 30 percent on Cyber Monday, according to cloud-based analytics data generated by Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM.

In addition, mobile purchases rose significantly, IBM data shows.

Through the end of the day Nov. 24, nearly a quarter of all consumers who visited a retailer’s website did so using a mobile device. Transactions made using a mobile device comprised 16 percent of all online sales, up from 9.8 percent a year ago, according to IBM.

Global economic analysis firm IHS Global Insight projected online holiday season retail sales would increase 17 percent over last year, with overall holiday retail sales projected to increase 3.9 percent.

In comparison, sales increased 5.5 percent from the 2010 holiday season to the 2011 season.

Phelan said that while small businesses don’t have the same resources that are employed by national chains, many are creating or entering niche markets and capitalizing on relationships with their respective local customer bases.

“They don’t have the same buying power or discounts available,” he acknowledged.

More than 100 businesses were scheduled to participate in the fourth annual Greenwich Holiday Stroll, held Dec. 1-2, which along with the town’s fourth annual Greenwich Reindeer Festival is aimed at promoting the area’s small business retailers.

Tammi Ketler, owner of TMK Sports & Entertainment L.L.C. in Greenwich, has organized the event since its inception. She said merchants participating in the festivities have reported a cumulative 20 to 25 percent increase in foot traffic for each of the past four years.

Ketler said it is important for events such as the Holiday Stroll in order to even the playing field between downtown shopping districts and shopping malls.

“It’s really critical that all the retailers do come together and participate and support the event because it’s all about them,” Ketler said. She added that 103 people are participating in the Holiday Stroll this year, after 49 participated the first year and 80 participated in 2011.

Technology applications surge

What will separate successful retailers from the rest is their use of various technologies to help attract customers and boost sales, said Robert M. Amster, principal of The Retail Technology Group, based in Stamford.

Amster said stores are increasingly substituting cash register stations for mobile point-of-sale (POS) devices, such as smartphones, and paper receipts for digital receipts, which he said presents an opportunity for stores to acquire customer email addresses.

“That has huge, huge implications for enhancing the customer experience,” he said.

In addition, Amster said more retailers are outfitting their sales teams with tablets and other mobile devices that allow them to sell customers items that might not be in stock in the sought-after colors or sizes, and that many stores are already embracing — or will soon be faced with — the reality that they need to provide free, in-store wireless Internet access for customers.

“So that way, I never let you walk out of the store without buying what you were looking for, even though I didn’t have it,” Amster said.

Many of the technologies currently growing in popularity are affordable for any size retailer, Amster said, noting that mobile POS devices are often cheaper than registers and that companies looking to boost mobile sales can often use existing applications that can be easily tailored to individual retailers.

In Greenwich, Ketler said many of the retailers participating in the Holiday Stroll are employing a mobile application called Shopper On The Go.

“They do a lot more than just the Greenwich community, but the have an app (shoppers) can download for free that will then show you where all the great promotions are in the downtown Greenwich area for stores that have chosen to participate,” she said.

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