If you’re planning to camp outside your favorite retailer the night before Black Friday, dress warmly, bring a book, and don’t use your smartphone. You’ll want it fully charged when the bargain-hunting begins.
Smartphones are indispensable shopping tools. They can guide you to nearby retailers and show you how bad the traffic will be. With Google Maps’ inside mapping feature, it’s almost impossible to get lost in malls. The leading retailers have their own apps to help you navigate their stores. And coupon clippers can rely on software instead of scissors.
But one much-discussed shopping innovation, Apple Inc.’s iBeacon technology, won’t be of much help this Christmas season. iBeacon uses Bluetooth radios to serve up special offers to your phone as you stroll through a retail store. But as with Apple’s vaunted payment technology Apple Pay, very few retailers use it.
Still, any iPhone or Android phone will get you to the mall, with driving instructions and traffic warnings. And once you’re inside, keep right on using Google Maps. It contains indoor maps for hundreds of major venues in the US, including museums, airports, and shopping malls. Bring up the mall on the Google Map, then zoom in. You’ll find stores and walkways clearly marked, and there’s an overlay feature that lets you peel away the upper floors to view each level of the mall. You can also see inside big-box retailers like Best Buy and Home Depot. Apple Maps also has an indoor map feature, but it’s far less detailed. Google Maps is standard issue on Android phones, and iPhone fans can easily download an iOS version, free of charge.
Some retailers have apps that simplify in-store navigation. Walmart and Target, for instance, let you look up individual items on the app and display the aisle numbers where you can find the merchandise. A St. Louis company called Aisle 411 has a free app that includes maps of every Home Depot, Walgreens, and Toys R Us store in the US. Select a particular store and punch in an item. You’ll see a pin in the map, pointing you to the right aisle for the product.
Many retailers say they’ll match competitors’ prices. Hold them to it with RedLaser, the free comparison shopping app from eBay. Just scan the bar code on an item, and instantly see its online price, as well as the prices charged by merchants a few miles away. RedLaser might be the comparison shopper’s ultimate weapon.
Before hitting the stores, be sure to check the Globe for coupons. You might not need to cut them out. A free app called SnipSnap can digitize many of them. Photograph each coupon with the phone’s camera, and SnipSnap creates an electronic version that you can use at the checkout line. The software also offers hundreds of online coupons, and has a feature that alerts you when any of them is going to expire. SnipSnap isn’t flawless; it only works with coupons offered by retailers, not the ones issued by product manufacturers. But it still means less time clipping and more time shopping.
If you’ve got an iPhone, and plan on visiting your local Apple retail store, you should install the Apple Store app first. This software lets you make in-store purchases of small items such as Bluetooth speakers or phone cases, without pestering the overworked sales staff. Use the credit card associated with your Apple ID, then scan the item’s bar code with the phone to pay for it instantly. A receipt appears on your iPhone’s screen.
The app also works with iBeacon to show the latest in-store specials. I got no iBeacon alerts during a visit to the Boylston Street Apple store earlier this week. But it was a different story across the street at Lord & Taylor, one of the few retailers using iBeacon. I first installed Swirl, an iBeacon-compatible app for iPhones and Androids made by Swirl Networks Inc. of Boston. As I walked past the cosmetics counter, Swirl revealed a sale on mascara; I learned of a discount on boots as I passed the shoe department. In all, the iBeacon system alerted me to over a dozen price cuts I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.
iBeacon works at Apple, Lord & Taylor, and Macy’s stores, but hardly anywhere else. Let’s give it a year or two to catch on. We can shop while we wait.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.