Shoppers are increasingly choosing to buy on the fly as the fashion world embraces the almighty app, writes Melissa Kent.

Clare Perry was at dinner with friends recently when her phone beeped, announcing some keenly awaited news. Casting a sheepish look at her fellow diners, she acted swiftly.

"I happened to be out at a restaurant when I got an email alert from Sportsgirl that a pair of pants I'd been waiting for had come in," she says. "So I literally bought them there and then while we were eating. That would have to be my worst concession to shopping."

Perry's mid-meal purchase reveals the habits of a new species of consumer - the mobile shopper. Unchained from their desktops and emboldened by the strong Australian dollar, this rapidly growing breed is plugged in and ready to shop anywhere, any time.

As far as fashion goes, smartphones and tablets are now the ultimate accessory. It's not about matching your iPad cover to the colour of your Manolos, however. We're talking about apps that can track down a designer handbag, find the lowest price and ship it to your letterbox the next day.

In recent months, an array of mobile-friendly tools have hit the market, allowing consumers to browse virtual shop windows, compare prices and snap up bargains with a few taps of their phone or tablet.

What sounded like far-fetched techno-wizardry even just a few years ago is now being hailed by some as the future of retail.

Subscribers to the Country Road and Forever New smartphone apps can browse digital catalogues, find size and stockist information and receive sales alerts. A Tiffany & Co app guides hapless males through the perilous task of finding the right engagement ring. Last month, Sportsgirl and shoe store Wittner launched innovative virtual billboards that allow customers to point their phone at a photo gallery of the latest products and scan in a QR (quick response) code. The code then takes them to a mobile platform where they can buy the item and have it delivered the next day.

Sportsgirl's strategic brand manager Prue Thomas says mobile technology is a perfect fit for the retailer, which has a young, mobile-savvy client base seeking the latest international trends.

"Customers don't want to wait any more, and none more so than our Sportsgirl customer," Thomas says. 'She wants it yesterday. She's so much more savvy and has so much more global inspiration to draw on now than she ever did. She's seen it somewhere on a blog in New York and she has the expectation that Sportsgirl are going to deliver it.

"Mobile and online sales are really fast-growing channels for us, and in terms of investment for the business, mobile is probably the key area of focus in the next 12 months."

"We want to create a seamless shopping experience, whether it's on your mobile, on your PC at home or in store."

Mobile retail, or m-commerce, is still in its infancy in Australia, but retail analysts expect growth to be rapid. According to IBM's Global Business Services arm, sales on mobile devices tripled to account for almost 10 per cent of online purchases in the 10 months to December. That figure is expected to jump to 50 per cent in the next three years as consumers and retailers embrace its convenience. This year, online payment system PayPal expects customers to spend $7 billion globally on mobile purchases, up from $4 billion last year.

Stephen Kulmar, founding director of Retail Oasis, says Australian retailers are playing catch-up to their European and American counterparts after dragging their feet due to an unwillingness to invest in expensive mobile-friendly web platforms.

"Admittedly, we've been incredibly late getting there," Kulmar says. "But we know that the market is moving rapidly from laptop, or traditional e-commerce, to mobile e-commerce. That's why we are now seeing a lot of retailers developing apps, and in doing that they are substantially having to modify their platforms, which they've only built recently."

It may be early days, but retail analysts believe the notoriously fast and fickle world of fashion is where mobile shopping could really take off.

At the L'Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival, which begins on Thursday, fashionistas for the first time will be able to buy catwalk creations as they come off the runway. The Shop The Runway initiative connects consumers via their smartphone to stockists' websites and local bricks-and-mortar retailers through a built-in GPS. They can also share each outfit on Twitter and Facebook with their friends.

It's a concept pioneered by BlackBerry at London Fashion Week three years ago and now widely used at international fashion festivals. It's a first for Australia, says LMFF chief executive Graeme Lewsey.

"Everything is so instant with digital these days, it's where consumers are going now," he says. "You no longer have to wait for your favourite looks to arrive in store. It's about looking to friends as decision-makers via social media and helping you decide what's cool. That's an important aspect, but the key objective is to support Australian retail. Our core business is still bricks and mortar."

Perry, a 31-year-old freelance journalist, says she rarely visits bricks-and-mortar stores these days. Instead, she uses her iPhone or iPad to buy clothes, make-up, books and electronics while walking to work or catching the bus. The appeal is the immediacy and limitless scope, she says.

"I've always been an online shopper and now with iPhones it's so easy [that] I've graduated to mobile retail," she says.

"It means I'm able to access high fashion as it's happening, so I'm not waiting for collections to fall into DJs or Myer. Most of the stores are up to speed now, so we're not buying last season's stock, but if you're wanting what's available in London today, now you can have it tomorrow."

Student Jessica Waters, 25, uses her mobile to buy everything from clothing to her weekly groceries. She browses email alerts to source bargains and uses apps to compare prices.

"I do a lot of shopping on public transport to keep myself occupied, or just sitting in front of the telly with my phone," she says. "I don't buy more than I used to but I buy differently, because I'm more aware of what's out there.

With so much information constantly available at the touch of a fingertip, spending patterns and habits are expected to change as mobile retail grows.

Like Perry and her mid-meal transaction, mobile shoppers are more inclined to make purchases on a whim, says Adrian Mullan of eCommerce Websites.

"On a mobile, people are more inclined to make spur-of-the-moment purchases, whereas desktop [purchases] are more of a set intention, so they'll be looking for items they know they need," he says. "On a mobile, you're out and about and killing 10 minutes on the train."

"It's also changing things like the time of day we are making purchases. Now there's people buying cases of Penfolds Grange at 2am or groceries at 11pm on a Sunday. There are no boundaries. It might just be something random that pops into your head, or in a physical store doing price comparison."

Indeed, price comparison is emerging as a prime mobile-shopping activity, with retailers including Amazon and eBay offering barcode scanners as part of their apps.

According to Getprice, which recorded a 20 per cent jump in traffic to its mobile site over Christmas, mobile shoppers use apps to browse goods, compare prices, read product reviews and make purchases.

Amazon customers can use their smartphone camera to photograph a barcode on the shelves of any other retailer's bricks-and-mortar outlet, then check the price against the same item in Amazon's online store.

It is this activity that, understandably, irks traditional retailers. Target in the US recently complained that people were using its stores as showrooms for goods that they would later source online at a lower price. Some retailers are even charging a 'try-on' fee to discourage the practice.

A ski shop in Sydney made news last year when it decided to charge customers a $50 fee to try on its ski boots.

As founder of London-based trend-forecasting company EDITD, expatriate Melburnian Geoff Watts monitors Twitter, Facebook and blogs and trawls retail sites across the web to gather data on stock, prices and sizes. He says the power of mobile retail in its early stages is more about engaging with customers rather than actual sales.

"The thing with mobile retail is people are walking around with a computer in their pocket which you can use to comparison shop or take a look at people's collections, but we're not seeing too many people actually buying products on mobile phones just yet," he says.

"I think it's early days and that will all change over the next four or five years. In Australia, retailers ought to be focused on traditional online website retail because that's what's really lacking in the market."

"That's where Australian retailers have the biggest exposure to overseas businesses coming in and disrupting them. Mobile retail is really kind of sexy at the moment but the thing to get buttoned up is the online store."

While some are concerned mobile technology will drive shoppers away from stores, a Melbourne initiative to be launched this month hopes to use it to lure them back. The MiiBrand app will use GPS technology to send out alerts about sales and special offers from a range of boutiques including LifewithBird, Diesel and Gorman.

"It's a new concept but from what we gather we can build customer loyalty and awareness," says LifewithBird founder Bridget McCall.

"Social media has become so important to us in the last 12 months; Facebook and our online boutique has grown massively and all the interaction that comes with that."

Watts says many of the newly launched mobile retail tools - such as Sportsgirl's and Wittner's interactive billboards - are probably more of a marketing stunt than a sales driver. For the moment.

"I think at this stage it's a little bit of a gimmick," he says.

"It probably doesn't convert to sales very well. But you've got to start somewhere."

"I think bridging the gap between your floor space and your shop windows and the mobile phone that people are walking around with is something that retailers really ought to do so they already have a relationship with their customers on that piece of equipment."

"Otherwise you could find it's another beachhead where people could open up ground."

"The key is staying one step ahead."