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Tech tools are trendy, timely

Ava Roxanne Stritt used to be the kind of person who read Consumer Reports before making any big purchase. She went to the library. She did her research.

That was before two kids, a full-time job and a blog began taking up her time. So this fall, when the Atlantan needed a new printer, she did something once unthinkable: She walked into a Best Buy store to buy the cheapest one she could find.

Once there, she noticed a printer that had a special bar code she could scan with her smart phone. Doing so took her to a video about its capabilities, which includes an e-mail address that allows users to print remotely.

“It totally changed my mind,” Stritt said. She bought the printer, even though it was more expensive. If she hadn’t seen the video, she said, she’d never have given it a second look.

This month, as holiday shoppers head for the malls, new technologies are beginning to change the way they shop. Among them:

● The so-called QR (“quick response”) codes such as Stritt used at Best Buy. They function like bar codes, but have squiggly lines and shapes instead of rectangles with straight lines. They link shoppers to more information about the product.

● Digital coupons that can be downloaded to shopper loyalty cards or displayed on smart phones in the store, eliminating the need to carry paper coupons.

● Kiosks where shoppers can scan loyalty cards, key in an order and return later to pick up a purchase.

● Personalized websites that recommend purchases based on data provided by users.

The jury is still out on many of these; much of the technology is not in wide use. But anecdotally, both consumers and retailers say the new options can benefit them in ways both practical and surprising.

Not a ‘hard sell’

Stritt’s Best Buy visit was the first time she used a QR code, though she’d seen them in magazines.

The codes, which are managed by different companies, can operate differently. Some require users to download a reader; others do not. In some cases, consumers with smart phones can simply hold their phones up to the codes and the phones will recognize the technology. They then direct shoppers to more information on a retailer’s website.

Simmons Bedding Co. in Atlanta has put the codes on its mattresses so consumers who haven’t shopped for one in a decade can learn what to look for, including the best way to test a mattress.

“It’s not designed to be a hard sell, it’s just designed to be informational,” Simmons executive vice president of marketing Tim Oakhill said. “It’s all about making this simple.”

At Shaw Floors, headquartered in Dalton, shoppers who scan the QR code on one brand of nylon carpet are directed to a video of a pie fight atop the carpet. Then they can see what the carpet looks like cleaned, following the fight. Other retailers, including Calvin Klein, Gap, Pepsi and Ralph Lauren, have used the scannable codes in their ads or on their products.

For shoppers, access to such information can work two ways: Serve as a jumping-off point for questions to ask the in-store sales staff, or give them the option of avoiding sales personnel altogether.

Rick Barrick, vice president of new media at Atlanta retail design firm Miller Zell, says only about 5 percent of consumers have used QR codes to date, though 20 percent are aware of them. For retailers, he said, they can help increase the “stickiness” of customers and cut down on the need for in-store promotional materials. For modern consumers, it meets them where they are technologically.

“Let’s use the technology folks have in their pocket,” Barrick said.

E-coupons and sensors

The new shopping technologies may also turn planners like Stritt into more frequent impulse buyers, Barrick said. Instead of cutting out coupons and only shopping when they have them, shoppers who download coupons to loyalty cards or smart phones are likely more willing to spend money — or do research — anytime.

Marietta resident Ariana Anderson is not a huge shopper, but her relatives are. She said her aunt used to cut out coupons and keep them in a drawer. But she wouldn’t always remember to bring them to the store, so wouldn’t buy.

“She shops more now,” Anderson said. Now, [her coupons] are on the phone the majority of the time.”

At Kroger grocery stores, which allow customers to download coupons to their loyalty cards, front-end coordinator Jill Nystrom said the redemption rate is much higher for those offerings than for paper coupons, by an 8-to-1 margin.

Some Kroger stores feature other technologies that are altering shopping habits. Kiosks at the deli counter, for instance, scan loyalty cards and allow shoppers to key in their orders. Instead of standing in line for their meat or cheese, they can come back and pick up their orders.

The company is also using sensors in some stores to determine how much time shoppers spend in each area and to reduce the wait time in checkout lines. That kind of technology can also help stores ensure they have the right mix of products and the right number of workers on the floor, Barrick said.

Personalized shopping

Not all the technological advancement in shopping is taking place inside stores. One Atlanta company, Abundant Closet, is trying to change the way people shop for clothes online.

Its tool, Fashion-Ade, asks users to upload their wardrobe to the site, then makes recommendations about how to match items already in a person’s closet with new pieces it finds.

Dillard’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos, an online shore store, are partners, said Abundant Closet CEO and founder Jody Fennell. The company appeals to those retailers because it enables them to get information on the content of shoppers’ closets in a way they would have been unable to before.

The site is in its early stages, Fennell said, but already about 15 percent of users are clicking through to the merchandise the site’s partners are selling. The site also lets users post their outfits on places like Facebook, which is where about 20 percent of the traffic comes from.

Sandy Springs resident Kyle Young, who has used the site to plan her outfits, said she has found it useful because it helps her keep track of her closet and combine outfits in ways she wouldn’t think of.

“I loved it,” she said. “It lets me find multiple uses for the same item, day to night.”