This is the third post in Michelle’s three part series on online versus brick and mortar retail in the fashion industry (be sure to also check out part one and part two).

Retail success in the 21st century is all about the internet, right? After all, we spent the first two parts of our series examining ways brick and mortar mainstays have integrated the web experience into their stores and how independent labels go about expanding their online presence and launching an online store. Surely retailers that have struck this balance between their physical and virtual businesses have got the whole landscape mapped out? Not so fast. Official statistics and anecdotes from everyday shoppers point to a new frontier that must be conquered. Mobile technology has the capacity to be a major driver in the retail industry, allowing consumers to bring the Internet with them into any store they choose. But what’s the best way to make use of this technology? Angie, Greg and I sat down to brainstorm this very question, and as we soon discovered, an effective mobile strategy isn’t something you can just phone in.

Statistics out of both the U.S. and Canada make it clear that retailers have good reason to pursue mobile options in the years to come. Data published on suggest more than 50 per cent of U.S. consumers are already turning to their smart phones to assist with their retail purchases – a hefty client base, considering the nation’s smart phone users number around 73.3 million. The figures are lower in Canada, but still hint at formidable marketing opportunities for the savvy retailer. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association recently reported there were about 25 million mobile phone users in the country, with a third of them using smart phones. Both studies also highlighted a growing willingness to experiment with mobile technology, suggesting companies that come up with innovative ways to tap into that interest could be reaping the rewards in short order. But what’s the best way to do that? We have only theories at this point, but we all believe retailers will be faced with another tricky balancing act – figuring out exactly what mobile tools to offer their customers without sacrificing their own interests.

If Angie, Greg and I are any measure of what the typical customer wants in a mobile strategy, the freedom and flexibility to share will be key. We all use our phones to take pictures of items we want, either for future reference or to share with others. Some, like Angie, may like to advertise intriguing finds on Twitter or other social networking sites. I take pictures mainly to seek feedback from the more style savvy, a process made even easier with tools like the YLF iPhone app. Many stores today have a no-photos policy, but the ones that encourage customers to take and share photographs would create an inviting retail atmosphere and likely cash in themselves. Maybe stores could urge shoppers to send their shots to in-house style consultants? Broadcast them to friends who happen to be in the area? The possibilities are endless for the retailer that embraces them.

Mobile phones also seem designed for the bargain-seeker in us all. With the whole Internet accessible from the phone, a simple Google search will enable discerning customers to see if the item they’re thinking of buying is on sale down the street for 30 per cent off,  or available online for even less. Most products have some sort of bar code, and mobile applications like Red Laser for the iPhone allow users to scan the product and immediately find prices from several competitors. Great for consumers, but scary for retailers, especially brick and mortar retailers who are competing with lower-overhead online alternatives.

Applications present another dilemma for retailers: Do they need their own app? Stores like H&M and Zara have introduced their own mobile programs, which would no doubt appeal to shoppers who are already loyal to those brands. If every store follows this path, however, retailers run the very real risk of overloading and even alienating their customers. Do consumers really want to download an app for every store they plan to visit? If they’re selective about their downloads, will they be ignoring retail options they might otherwise have considered? What content do customers want to see in a store’s mobile application? These questions have no easy answers, but retailers would be well advised to start making educated guesses if they hope to stay competitive.

Retailers will also have to be careful not to let mobile technology become a meaningless gimmick used solely to lure customers through their doors. These three shoppers, at least, would like to see some value in using mobile technology in stores. Sites like have primed customers to troll the internet for discounts – perhaps retailers could adapt this technology to offer exclusive bargains to those shoppers who come armed with smart phones? Stores could take this one step further and tap into location-based social networks, such as Foursquare and Facebook Places, to offer time-sensitive promotions to people in the area.

Retailers can take advantage of Google “wallet”, technology announced just last week that will allow shoppers to pay for their purchases using only their phones. No more cash or credit cards, just tap your phone on a reader and you’re done. Some may wish to offer mobile-based loyalty points to supplement their existing incentive programs.

If tech-savvy retailers play their cards right, the world of mobile customers could truly be their oyster. While the phone is bringing many scary changes to their business, it also brings so many interesting new ways to interact with you, their customer. What’s your take on the role of mobile technology in the retail environment? Are you excited by the possibilities, or does the whole thing leave you feeling overwhelmed? Which ideas resonate with you? Have you got some of your own? If you use a smartphone, what are your favourite apps while shopping?

Michelle McQuigge is a Toronto-based journalist working as a reporter and editor at The Canadian Press.  You can follow her on Twitter.