In September, J.C. Penney set up a test in 16 stores around Houston, in which customers with Web-enabled phones could check on discounts, choose the ones they wanted and then scan special barcodes from their phones into a device at the checkout.
It worked -- to a point. This spring, the department store operator rolled out the program nationwide without the barcodes and the scanners. Now, customers just show a numeric code on their phone to the salesperson who rings up the sale.
Management decided it would be too expensive to buy special equipment for its 1,100-plus stores when the program would work without it. "That's quite an investment," said spokesman Tim Lyons.
In the parts of the business world where talking directly to consumers is critical, dabbling in mobile marketing has become more relevant. But while retailers are paying attention, they're not willing to over-commit to any single technology. Twitter may be hot and iPhone apps all the rage, yet something new could come along next year that will send shoppers in another direction.
Still, business acceptance of the idea of selling through phones and personal electronic devices seems to have gone from skeptical to very interested in the past year or so thanks to the BlackBerrys and the iPhones and the Droids. Consumer use of personal devices connected to the Internet has accelerated, and nobody wants to be left without an address on the information highway, even though it's staking out territory on the fringes because more consumers don't have smart phones than do.
Research firm Nielsen Co. earlier this month released data showing 23 percent of all mobile phone subscribers have smart phones. A recent survey by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation found more than 50 percent of adults 18 to 34 years old want to be able to surf the Web on their phone.
By 2015, Nielsen predicts "smart phones will be the primary enabler of consumer shopping engagements and new technology innovations will generate additional opportunities for retailers and manufacturers."
By then, the stores and the restaurants and the makers of products need to be comfortable in that landscape. "We're really seeing that as the future of where retail is going as far as with customer interaction," said Lyons.
Target has begun offering mobile services, including a monthly text message with exclusive deals sent to registered web-enabled phones. American Eagle Outfitters recently tested a text message promotion program called AE MobiLife, thanking participants with a code for $20 off a purchase of $50 or more.
Shop 'n Save and Giant Eagle offer some discounts through Cellfire.com, the same company that handles the Penneys program. Customers with web-enabled phones can browse the deals while they're shopping and then load the ones they want onto their loyalty cards.
There are still more coupons distributed via traditional methods and no one can be sure exactly how far consumers will be willing to go with the mobile services, which generally require them to give out some personal information.
Marketers can't be sure which of the new tools actually will be effective in getting people's attention either.
Fast-food chain KFC used its Twitter account to give out a "secret" password that 100 fans at specific restaurants in various cities could use to get a free meal recently.
Another mobile tool that retailers and consumer marketers are playing around with is FourSquare, a sort of location-based program that cell phone users can use to let friends know where they are or to comment on a particular place.
It's not unusual for businesses to be listed on FourSquare without the knowledge of those who own them. Any FourSquare user can add a location and make a comment about the place. Anyone who checks in at the same place more than anyone else becomes the "mayor" of that site.
For businesses, one benefit of FourSquare can be identifying loyal customers and rewarding them. Shops also may get some attention from FourSquare users who are visiting a new area and check their cell phones to find out about nearby stores.