A few of you may have managed to navigate the sea of humanity at the mall on Friday and emerge with sacks of gifts and holiday shopping nearly done. The rest of us can look forward to days of trudging from one store to the next or hunching over the computer at work, surreptitiously surfing for that elusive deal on a Michael Kors watch or on the FIFA 2013 video game.
But in a world of smartphones and tablets, a host of mobile apps can make shopping much easier — or less painful — by finding the best prices on popular items, locating a hard-to-find gift at a nearby store, or even suggesting what to get your crotchety old aunt.
The best apps are as useful inside the mall as for shopping online. They blend barcode scanning and text input and use GPS and other location technologies so you can compare products between online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores. They also organize coupons according to your location and weed out expired deals.
Most such apps are free, available for both Apple iOS and Android devices.
One of the best is eBay Inc.’s RedLaser Barcode and QR Scanner. It scans quickly and accurately and lists prices at major retailers, online and offline, while showing how far stores with the products in stock are from your current location. Moreover, RedLaser provides reviews and suggests products similar to those you have scanned. It archives your searches, and you can create lists of the items you’ve been scanning and looking up.
For sheer elegance, ShopAdvisor, from Boston-based Evoqu, is hard to match, with its smart and simple-to-use comparison shopping tool. ShopAdvisor also has an excellent voice input feature. Its search results are detailed and well-organized, and often surprising. I searched for “Mini Cooper” (the ride-on toy for little kids) and got a mix of online and local retailers with prices ranging from $179 to $399.99.
Among price-comparison tools, the elephant in the room is Google Shopper. As with the Internet giant’s other search tools, the app lets you sort and narrow results by distance and other criteria. Punch “Jo Malone perfume” into Shopper, and the app can limit hits to brick-and-mortar stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, or only to those stores that have the item in stock.
And in addition to a barcode-scanning feature, Google Shopper will recognize pictures of products you take with the device’s camera: It recognizes books, compact discs, DVDs, and video games by their covers.
Another monster in the market, and rightfully so, is the Amazon Mobile App. It has the same features as Google Shopper, and you can do almost anything with the app that you can do online at the Amazon.com website.
I’m an Amazon Prime customer and plan to do most of my shopping through the online retail giant, so I’ll be leaning heavily on the Amazon Mobile App. But often the only place to get a specific gift is at a brand-name store, for those retailers have their own in-house apps online and in-store discounts and deals.
Among brick-and-mortar retailers, Shop Gap, from the Gap, is my favorite. It has many of the same features — barcode scanner, store finder, searches by apparel category — as others, but expands your horizons considerably by including products from the other brands in the Gap family: Old Navy, Banana Republic, Piperlime, and Athleta. You can toss items from all the stores into your shopping basket and check out at one time.
Another obvious tool for bargain hunters is an app for coupons. But I find too many of them have deals that have long since expired, or offer up junk from sketchy online stores. Using them inside a real store, meanwhile, I find the cashiers are often mystified when I present them with a paperless coupon on my mobile phone.
The two least-bad apps in this category are the Coupons App and GeoQpons.
The Coupons App is among Google Play’s most popular downloads, and it’s easy to see why.
The app, which uses location technology from Boston-based Skyhook, Inc., shows you thousands of coupons for nearby brick-and-mortar stores, and lists expiration dates more accurately than many others. It also has a barcode-scanning feature.
GeoQpons has the same features, and its partnerships with Elizabeth Arden, Land’s End, and the Gap ensure its coupons from those retailers are up to date.
Most shopping apps are best at helping us find the best deals on specific items. But what if you are still mulling ideas? One app, Yupty, which is available in iOS only, is among the few that combines social networking with shopping.
Many shopping apps let you post product photos and descriptions with your friends on Facebook, for example. But Yupty, which reminds me of Pinterest, is specifically designed to support decision-making.
Yupty community members can weigh in instantly with their thumbs up or down on a scarf or sweater, so hopefully you will get some feedback before you leave the store.