Lifestyle

Apps stirring holiday bargain insanity

Jacob Thomas for The Boston Globe

Jacob Thomas for The Boston Glob

To all the retailers and venture-capital-funded shopping-app start-ups who seem to want nothing more than to help me save money this holiday season, I have one thing to say: Please, leave me alone. Stay out of my inbox. Off my phone. Away from my iPad.

Yes, I want brag-worthy deals, but even more than that, I want to relax in one, small part of my life.

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When I go to a store, I don’t want to spend the entire time trying to get a strong smartphone signal so I can see whether the retailer I’m visiting is charging $5 more for a Roku 3 streaming media player than the big-box store across town, or even on the other side of this freakishly large mall, meaning I should dash from the store I’m in to the other one and hope that the first store doesn’t lower its price while I’m at the second store, (over) paying.

Oh, for the old days, when Filene’s Basement was the only discount game in town, and department-store sales came after Christmas. Back then, a big part of the fun was the feeling — if not the reality — that you had scored a real bargain. You didn’t even have to get the absolute best deal. Merely paying less than the price tag’s original number, no matter how inflated by a designer name, was satisfying.

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But now, thanks to the onslaught of sale-centric shopping apps, online flash sales, big-data analytics that project the best day to shop, daily deal sites, mobile coupons, friends and family discounts for people who are neither, Black Friday deals that stretch longer than presidential campaigns, and text messages letting you know that a sale’s going on right now, no matter how little you paid for Sony’s PlayStation 4, or a “Frozen” doll, you are filled with nagging insecurities about how you probably could have gotten it for less.

What?! You bought a Fitbit from a website that charges for return shipping? And you paid with a credit card that doesn’t earn you hotel points? Three days before Thanksgiving — on Mauve Monday? Using non-password-protected WiFi? And you forgot to ask for a gift receipt? May God save your soul.

On Tuesday — with Black Friday sales already underway — I talked to a shopper who’d just left a Banana Republic. She had bought a gray cashmere sweater at 30 percent off but was feeling fiscally irresponsible. “I know if I wait until Monday I can probably get it for 40 percent off,” she said. “But I’m here now.”

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The pursuit of deals on holiday presents (and self gifts) that recipients don’t even want has wormed itself so far into the fabric of daily life that in 2014, even when you’re not physically or virtually shopping, some digital personal assistant is on the job for you — well, as long as you’ve downloaded and bookmarked the right apps and websites.

Services like Price!Pinx and PoachIt work to find you the lowest prices on life’s necessities — “Call of Duty,” Uggs, a sweater for the dog who already has everything. All you have to do is find the items online and upload the information. It should only take up all of my spare time. When the prices fall, the sites will notify you, like modern-day Paul Reveres.

Sure, you could be at a funeral when an iPhone case drops by $4, but if the deceased is as wonderful as the eulogies make him out to be, he would have understood.

The new apps and deal sites are so all-encompassing that they can make you feel guilty for ignoring price cuts on items you didn’t even realize you “needed.”

In a bout of masochism, I downloaded RedLaser , an app that informs you of all nearby sales. In my case, the retailers eager to save me money included The Body Shop, LensCrafters, and GameStop. Why was I foolishly spending time with my kids when I could have been online, taking advantage of a deal at Au Bon Pain (if I handed over my e-mail address, I’d get a free travel mug and more, plus, I’m guessing, e-mails about future deals).

Careful shoppers can, of course, reap substantial savings, but a single-minded focus on getting a few bucks off isn’t the route to happiness, said consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow , author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy.”

“There is a tremendous amount of irony associated with shopping apps,” she said. “People like them because they think they are going to have more control over something they can’t control — exactly when something goes on sale — but what I hear from consumers is that the apps make them feel out of control.

‘It’s really another layer of complexity.’

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“Yes, you might get a $10 savings if you order now, but perhaps you just ordered something else online, and this is a budget buster, and it requires you to make an on-the-spot immediate decision. It’s really another layer of complexity for not a huge amount of savings.”

Yarrow, a professor emerita at Golden Gate University, interviewed shoppers as part of her research and recalled one woman who said she went to the mall, but spent the entire time in the bathroom, comparing prices on her phone.

The bathroom? True, it’s not ideal. But at least she got to sit down.

More coverage:

Tips to avoid holiday shopping stress

What to wear to a holiday party? 17 outfit ideas

Music Gift Guide: Holiday albums

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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