As smartphone adoption has taken the nation by storm, the devices are finding their way into a variety of practical applications. Every sector from healthcare to finance has begun to embrace the convenience of these devices. One of the biggest shifts has been in the world of consumer behavior. Shopping activity via smartphones and tablets has exploded over the last year, with consumers increasingly using mobile Internet to find deals, conduct product research and ultimately, purchase products. Analysts estimate that this shift towards mobile commerce (m-commerce) could be one of the biggest technology trends since the dawn of the PC. For investors, playing the trend could be just what a sagging tech portfolio needs. (For more, see Earning Forecasts: A Primer.)

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Huge Growth in 2011
With consumer spending accounting for a large part of the United States' GDP, the growth of m-commerce is nothing to take lightly. As of 2011, 58% of mobile phone owners and 75% of tablet users have made purchases with their devices, compared to just 23% of mobile device users in July 2010 and 13% in November 2009. A recent study completed by RichRelevance showed that the share of total dollars spent on mobile devices doubled from 1.77% in April to 3.74% in December 2011. The research firm's data also showed that there were more than 3.4 billion individual shopping sessions during that time period. Average check size also increased, with Apple's iOS-based users spending an average of $123 and Google's (Nasdaq:GOOG) Android users spending around $101 per shopping experience. This compares to just $87 for the average PC online shopper.

Much of this growth was seen in frenzied shopping days during the Christmas season. International Business Machine (NYSE:IBM), which tracks a variety of Internet-related data, reported that 18.3% of all traffic to online retail sites came from mobile devices during this time period. This is up from 8.4% during the 2010 holiday season. Overall, consumers using mobile devices accounted for nearly 15% of holiday sales, up from 5.3% a year ago.

There are currently around 90 million smartphone and 24 million tablet users in the U.S. As more Wi-Fi and 3G/4G networks are rolled out by telecom firms, the trend of buying with these devices will ultimately increase. According to analysts at eMarketer, mobile commerce revenue will rise 73.1% in 2012, reaching a total of $11.6 billion. The group predicts that this number with reach $31 billion by 2015.

Playing the Surge
With the m-commerce trend firmly in place, investors may want to consider adding some exposure to the sector. The First Trust Nasdaq CEA Smartphone (Nasdaq:FONE), along with the PowerShares Nasdaq Internet (Nasdaq:PNQI) make broad and ideal ways to play the trend. The First Trust fund features smartphone network providers and firms related to smartphone hardware, and smartphone software applications. While the PowerShares fund features major e-tailers and m-commerce players like Overstock.com (Nasdaq:OSTK) and eBay (Nasdaq:EBAY).

Payment specialist MasterCard (NYSE:MA) has seen the m-commerce light and has been aggressively active in the space. The company recently invested $18 million in banking software firm mFoundry. The alliance will link mFoundry's mobile banking software solutions with MasterCard's Tap & Go PayPass technology. mFoundry's clients include Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) and PNC (NYSE:PNC). This gives MasterCard an edge in the digital wallet space. Similarly, rival Visa (NYSE:V) made a large investment in m-commerce firm Square.

Finally, the biggest winner in all of this could be Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL). The firm's devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod) generated more than 92% of m-commerce sales during 2011. While there are plenty of other smart devices available, Apple's products seem to have captured the imagination of consumers and the company remains the preferred choice in this market.

The Bottom Line
As more consumers use smartphones, mobile shopping will undoubtedly increase. 2011 was already a period of high growth for the sector and analysts predict that the upcoming years will be just as big. For investors, adding the trend makes sense to a tech portfolio. The aforementioned stocks are great ways to play that trend. (For additional reading, check out 5 Must-Have Metrics For Value Investors.)

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At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt did not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

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