How shoppers rule at Christmas

A smartphone user searches for best deals before while shopping.
CBS News

It was so simple and peaceful back then: Three wise men, bringing gifts to the manger.

How could they have known it would lead to the frenzy of the holiday shopping season? The epic battles in the marketplace this year between customer and retailer - between the ONLINE and INLINE worlds.

We asked two experts to play Santa's helpers and sort out the naughty and the nice this Christmas day.

"The Christmas season has become the retail Super Bowl," said Adam Hanft, a branding and advertising expert.

Collin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Financial, said the good news this holiday season is that Americans still love to spend. The bad news is they all want discounts."

To entice shoppers, retailers unwrapped their version of the twelve days of Christmas.

There was Black Friday . . .

"This is really a reflection of the fact that the economy is still struggling and stalled," said Hanft.

. . . Small Business Saturday . . .

". . . and that marketers need to find ways to let consumers know that there's some really exciting pricing going on . . ."

. . . Cyber Monday . . .

". . . Because otherwise, they won't get the numbers they need."

. . . Green Monday . . .

"It's the level of marketing mania that will continue 'til it reaches the point of saturation ..."

. . . and Free Shipping Friday . . .

" . . . and consumers say, 'I've had enough.'"

And what were we buying? Smart phones are one of the hottest gifts this year. But they also became a major shopping TOOL.

"It's the story of 2011 that the smart phone, which about a third of Americans have now, is changing the way people buy and look for goods," said Gillis.

Hanft says that the smart phone represents a huge economic shift from retailers to the consumer: "It used to be, the price was the price. Maybe if you called a manager over or you were willing to wait a half-hour, you can get ten bucks off. But now, the power is in the hands of the person who holds the smart phone."

That's because now you can compare a store's prices with other retailers on your smart phone.

Let's say you're after a video game: "They're showing the Sony PlayStation is $249 [at] 12 sellers," Haft demonstrates. "Nobody wants to be beaten by anybody else, so Sears, Wal-Mart, Buy.com, Best Buy, PC Richard, they all have it at the same price. And then you can see Office Max has it at 50 bucks more. That's a big difference."

Amazon even offered special discounts if customers went into a store, compared prices - and then bought from Amazon.

"Ultimately, you're going to be walking into a store with your phone, you'll see a good, you'll scan it with your phone, check the price, and if you like it, boom, you'll pay for it with your phone," said Gillis.

Unless the buyer finds it for a better price somewhere else. "Down the block, or from an e-commerce provider," said Gillis.

And there's a lot more comparison shopping in the forecast.

Some sites analyze prices and predict whether they're going to go up or down - whether you should buy now, or wait. Hanft showed us an app that would tell you what the price for an item might be in the future.

"Let's say you want to buy now, so that'll tell you you can buy now because it's not likely that the price will go down in the future," Hanft said. "This one is safe to buy. This one it says, 'Wait.' It looks at the price history, what price it was before, and makes some projections on what the price is going to be. And that really is another level of data sophistication. It's not just, 'What's the cheapest price now?' It's what you can expect going forward."

But if consumers are collecting more data, so are retailers. They're figuring out what you want . . . before you even tell Santa.