Mobile devices and social media have changed shopping forever. You can text, tweet and post on Facebook what's hot and what's on sale. You can snap and send photos of fabulous finds. You can tell your friends where the crowds are -- and aren't. You can comparison shop on your phone.
And, if you don't get the service you think you should, you can complain as loudly as you want in cyberspace.
Online shopping continues to reach new levels, especially as customers have come to expect to find deals today, known as Cyber Monday. More than half of folks with Internet access at work -- nearly 76 million -- are expected to shop online, according to the National Retail Federation.
Even if you plan to shop in stores, you can use social media.
"It's the season of sharing," said Jennifer L. Cherry, senior vice president of public relations firm Marx Layne. "And the power of shopping is now in the palm of your hands."
In the past few years, retailers have turned to social media to connect with and engage customers, said Cherry, who writes about social media trends for the Michigan Retail Association. This year, she added, many retailers are tying their sales campaigns, as well as their customer service, together and are rewarding shoppers who use their social media tools -- including text messages, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest and websites -- with deals and freebies.
Experts point to five ways you can take advantage of social media tools:
1. Get the scoop on deals and products. The Web gives you more information than ever before -- sometimes before anyone else has it. Shoppers are taking in information and sending it out. Whether it's following someone such as Free Press shopping writer Georgea Kovanis at @georgeakovanis to find great deals or reporting to your friends whether there are any red cashmere sweaters left in stock, social media lets you in on the closely held secrets. What's more, retailers are using these platforms to publish special deals and even what their layaway and return policies are. Want to know whether that toy is hot -- or safe? Google it and see what others have said.
2. Share the experience. Now, you can take your entire network of friends -- no matter where they are -- with you.
Many people now share the shopping experience virtually through social media. Want to know whether that outfit you're trying on looks good on you? Take a photo and text it, or post your question on Facebook. Do you need to commiserate after a harrowing day at the mall? Or vent about the long walk from the parking lot? Or complain about that oh-so-rude clerk?
No matter where you are, you and your friends can shop together.
3. Buy the right gift, every time. If you are looking for something specific, use social media to locate it by asking people on Twitter or Facebook. You also can get ideas and suggestions from others for that hard-to-shop-for relative. And you can return the favor by sharing what you know with others, too. In addition, wish lists on websites or pins of favorite things on Pinterest can help you get just the right gift. If you are not sure about, say, the right color, just snap a photo of it and find a way to subtly ask. This way, you don't have to wait until the gift is opened to know whether it's the right thing.
4. Get exclusive deals and freebies. To entice shoppers to join their social networks, such as liking a page on Facebook or checking in on Foursquare, companies are offering exclusive deals and freebies.
Quicken Loans, for example, said it expects to give away up to $100,000 to people who like it on Facebook and fill out a form.
The Gap is creating and mailing custom postcards of customers who visit Postagram's Facebook app. People who pin Gap's favorite holiday items to their Pinterest wish lists through an app on Gap's Facebook page will be entered to win Gap gift cards. Companies also are sending offers directly to customers through text messages, Facebook and Twitter.
5. Expect better customer service -- and quicker responses. These days, everyone has an opinion -- and many people are expressing theirs on social media. As a result, retailers are trying to use social media not just to market to you, but interact. In some cases, it might be easier to connect with companies on Twitter than calling or waiting in line for a clerk.
"It's comforting to know," Cherry said, "if you need something, there's someone there to help you."
More Details: How to use social media tools
-- Twitter: Ideal for real-time interaction. Follow hashtags (such as #CyberMonday), companies (such as @Walmart, @Target, @BestBuy_Deals, others), and shopping experts (Free Press writer Georgea Kovanis). Other companies, such as TinyMassive will tell where to find the best deals if you tweet the product.
-- Facebook:Great for getting information from a retailer and exchanging information with your network of relatives and friends. Most retailers have Facebook pages, which can be found by searching within Facebook. You can click "Like" on the page to get updates from the retailer in your news feed.
-- Foursquare: Gives location-based endorsements and tells you where your friends have gone to shop. Some retailers give you discounts and special offers if you "Check In" to locations. The requirements for deals vary. Some depend on whether you are checking in for the first time, how many times you check in or how many of your friends also check in.
-- Instagram app for Apple or Android: Good for looking at product photos. You can send photos to others to see if an item interests them. You can find retailers on Instagram by searching for their names, and you can find themes of products by searching for hashtags such as #sweaters, #shopping, #holidayshopping or even #cybermonday.
-- Pinterest: Can help you create lists of favorite things or items you want by browsing what others would like to get as gifts. The platform also just rolled out a feature to allow you to create private pin boards for the holidays, so you have some control who can see your lists. Learn how to set one up.
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