The 2012 consumer is not much different from the 2011 consumer, and the changes that began over the past 12-24 months will solidify in 2012. With faster networks, more Web-centric smartphone devices, and the ease of making mobile payments, more shoppers purchased on mobile devices in 2011 than in years prior, demonstrating a trend toward mobile buying rather than simply mobile researching.

In December 2011, sales from smartphones and tablets accounted for 11% of total online sales, up from 5.5% in December 2010, according to IBM Benchmark. The same study found that iPad tablet users are more likely to complete a purchase: The conversion rate for iPad users was 6.3% in December 2011, compared with 3.1% for mobile devices overall.

In addition, the 2012 consumer will continue to turn to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks—including some new ones that are gaining steam—to get suggestions and feedback from social connections when making buying decisions.

To help prepare you for a new year and the changing mobile and social retail environment, I've provided a list of the top trends to watch and suggestions for how to respond to your customers' continually evolving shopping habits.

1. Online storefronts come to tablets

As if you didn't have enough work to do extending your brand to smartphones, the popularity of tablets means you'll need to make sure your online shopping experience also works in the tablet environment. However, the challenges posed by smartphones aren't necessarily the same ones posed by tablets.

For example, the iPad doesn't support Adobe Flash, so if your retail storefront relies on that programming tool, you'll need alternate solutions for the tablet storefront. Also, tablet users don't use a mouse to click on and zoom in on images. If your site has images that require a mouse for zooming, you'll need an alternate—tablet-friendly—method.

2. Ensure a consistent experience

While you're retooling your storefront to address tablet users, you'll also need to be conscious of maintaining consistency of look and feel across all channels: PCs, mobile devices, tablets, and (of course) print catalogs and brick-and-mortar stores. If you offer a benefit in one channel, such as free shipping or giftwrapping, for example, make sure that offer appears in all other channels. Most important, ensure your brand's customer service standards are maintained across platforms as well.

3. Rethink search and navigation

The growth of shopping via tablet will increase search and navigation challenges for retailers, because they have to develop new ideas for helping shoppers move around a site. Tablets offer certain benefits over smartphones: Their screens are bigger, so content and images are easier to read and see.

On the downside, navigating a website via a tablet screen isn't easy if the website is crafted for the PC experience. Tablet users tap and swipe with their fingers to choose content, but small text menus and lists of refinements can be difficult to select with taps and swipes. That is also true for onscreen buttons or page numbers: The elements are just small enough to pose problems for finger-driven navigation.

Retailers should test the tablet experience to make sure shoppers don't inadvertently click on other selections when choosing search refinements or navigation options.

4. Satisfy the real-time shopping urge

A key shopping difference exists between tablets and smartphones. When shopping via smartphones, people generally do research before buying. When browsing via a tablet, people are usually prepared to make a purchase. Accordingly, retailers should make the buying process on the tablet storefront as fast and straightforward as possible. For instance, they should make sure that search and navigation tools help speed the path from browsing to buying, and they should add relevant merchandising.

5. Bring shopping and searching to social networks

When mobile users spend 91% of their Internet time on social networks, that's a sign that you need to bring the retail experience into those social settings. The 2012 online consumer would rather do her retail browsing from within the social networks that she spends so much time using, instead of being forced to jump to another site. You can respond to that social environment by adding search boxes to your Facebook pages and letting shoppers use their Facebook login info to sign in to your storefront.

6. Bring social into search

Besides wanting to search while being social, shoppers want to do the reverse. When viewing search results, whether on your retail site or on search engines, shoppers want to know what their social connections have to stay about the search target. Shoppers trust what their friends and family say about brand preferences and shopping selections, and they'll look for ways to tap into those information sources when they search and shop. Consider ways to weave social information into search results. One way is to reorder search results based on how many Facebook or Google+ "Likes" the product has racked up.

7. Get new social networks on the radar

Pinterest, the online pin board, is gaining attention and is occupying online user mindshare that might otherwise go to Facebook. The site increased its audience from 418,000 visitors in May 2011 to 4.9 million in December, according to ComScore. Pinterest has been slowly rolling out tools for brands. You can now add "Pin It" buttons to products so that shoppers can add their favorite items to their Pinterest page. Stay tuned to the Pinterest blog for more news about branding tools for marketers.

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Thierry Costa is vice-president of marketing at SLI Systems, where he is responsible for the company's global marketing efforts as well as driving growth of SLI's search technology and services in the e-commerce and publishing industries. He can be reached via