Smartphones and tablet computers are changing the way consumers shop and gather information about products before they buy. And as their uptake accelerates, savvy retailers will need to ensure their mobile presence engages with consumers and builds loyalty. After all, price comparison engines are just a short click away, writes Petah Marian.

Smartphones and tablets have already emerged as a key resource for fashion retailers in this year's back-to-school season.

Just under half of US consumers own the web-enabled devices according to a survey by the National Retail Federation, and almost a third of tablet owners plan to use them to buy back-to-school items.

Deloitte, meanwhile, estimates an even larger opportunity for retailers, after research it commissioned found that nearly two-thirds of smartphone owners plan to use them for back-to-school shopping purchases.

Looking beyond their obvious use as a browser to drive e-commerce sales, smartphones and tablets offer price-conscious and time-poor consumers an opportunity to track down information quickly and easily - especially when it comes to looking for bargains.

This means they're armed with a lot more information before making their purchases - and it's giving them a lot more power in the overall transaction equation.

Deloitte found that three out of five shoppers with web-enabled smartphones will use them to get price details on prices. And third party providers like Google and Red Laser are offering consumers the opportunity to compare prices by scanning barcodes and even taking photos of products.

The research also suggests that more than two out of five shoppers will download discounts, coupons or sale information to their smartphones. Shopkick is one such service, offering rewards or discounts to consumers for simply walking into a participating retailer's store. American Eagle, Target and Wet Seal have already signed up, offering deals and rewards like iTunes gift cards for using the app.

Connecting with consumers
Coupons are another area where retailers can really connect with consumers.

For this back-to-school season, Target and JC Penney offered coupons to consumers who text a special number. JC Penney took this a step further, displaying MS (Microsoft) tags on billboards, bus shelters and subway station ads in New York that could be scanned for more information and special discounts.

While consumer confidence remains low, Deloitte's survey found that most shoppers (86%) still intend to spend the same amount on back-to-school products as last year.

This means that offering the lowest price through comparison engines or coupons is not the only lever that can be used in the battle for smartphone attention.

Sears launched a personal shopper app which allows consumers to take a picture of the item they want; this then gets sent to its team of expert shoppers who track down the item and contact the customer via phone or email.

LLBean also began offering a mobile optimised site ahead of the back-to-school season, which allowed consumers to pull up product reviews before buying, as well as a customer services callback feature.

Meanwhile, American Eagle offered shoppers in New York, Washington DC and LA the opportunity to pay for their in-store purchases using Google Wallet - an app that turns the phone into a mobile payment system - with additional discounts for each transaction carried out this way.

Customer loyalty
Across the pond, Topshop in London has been experimenting with a gaming app that allows students to earn points and unlock Topshop rewards. The Scvngr game requires users to complete challenges to collect rewards, prizes and discounts throughout the store.

But while retailers increasingly experiment with high-tech smartphone and tablet offers, for many time-poor consumers, simplicity remains key.

Shopping mall developer Westfield and Target are two operators that offer information on product availability. Westfield's app offers consumers the ability to find out if a product is in stock across 200 of its retailers, as well as being able to get directions to chosen items.

As smartphone and tablet penetration continues to increase, consumers will begin to expect a smartphone offer, beyond a standard store locator, as par for the course.

And retailers who develop their own engaging products, offer better customer service, better functionality, and more exclusive products, will make it harder for customers simply make a decision based on price.