With fast-ending sales, stackable coupons and online-only discounts, in-store shoppers often have good reason to question whether the price they see is really the best deal out there. More are turning to a growing roster of price-comparison apps for an answer -- and getting mixed results.
Nearly 40% of smartphone owners use their phones for in-store price comparisons, making it the top mobile shopping-related activity, according to Nielsen. And even those with regular cell phones run price checks: During the 2011 holiday shopping season, 19% of consumers used their phone to compare products or prices in store, up from 15% in 2010 and 3% in 2009, according to customer service research firm ForeSee. "It's such a great development for consumers," says Deborah Mitchell, executive director for the Center of Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Experts warn, however, that the apps may not always be so effective and some stores are determined to thwart them. "Retailers obviously don't like them," says Brad Spirrison, the managing editor for review site Appolicious. To keep customers from making an easy comparison, some now use store-specific barcodes that the apps can't scan, or negotiate with manufacturers for exclusive model numbers -- which means a fast search won't turn up any results.
Apps are also only as good as their underlying price-search engine, says Edgar Dworsky, the founder of ConsumerWorld.org. Some stores or sites may be excluded from results, and partner retailers may be given preference in the listings. The software may update prices only sporadically or fail to include shipping, which can distort results, he says. And local search results are often limited to big-box retailers, with no mom-n-pop listings. "Maybe I'm being a little old-fashioned, but I tend to do my homework on a computer at home before I go to the store," he says. "That makes it easier to check a few sites for comparison."
Still, having a reliable price-comparison app or two on your phone can be a smart spot-check. Some stores may even be willing to match deals the apps find. Here are five the experts say are worth the download:
- iPhone, Android, Windows
One of the big names in mobile price checks, RedLaser lets shoppers scan barcodes or conduct manual searches by typing in a product's name, Spirrison says. Experts say it tends to read product barcodes more easily and accurately than other apps, which may cut down search time. Searches for a $200 Microsoft Xbox 360 4GB turned up an extensive 99 online results, including eBay auctions (eBay acquired the startup in 2010), and listed a few independent shops in local results, too. Cheapest prices: $144 on eBay, $190 at a nearby Dell store. Local results are sorted by proximity rather than price, however, so be prepared to scroll through to find the cheapest deals. A spokeswoman says the cheapest local price is noted at the top of overall search results, but it's worth looking through them all -- Toys R Us allows users to link through the app to reserve items for in-store pickup, and Best Buy will too at some point this spring.
- iPhone, Android
Not only will this free app find gadget prices online and nearby, it also notes whether there's a new model due out soon or other factors that could impact pricing. "It'll tell you whether you should buy the item now or wait," Dworsky says. A new 2012 model 42" Panasonic Viera, for example, gets a "buy" rating, since the site expects prices to hold steady. It found sets for $600 at a nearby Best Buy, and online as cheap as $470 at PCConnection.com. App users can scan barcodes or type in a product name to find items, and sign up for price-drop alerts if they decide to wait. But check the confidence rating on predictions about price changes -- Decide.com claims 77% turned out to be accurate on average. "It's a bit like the weather," says spokesman Michael Paulson. "But an 80% chance is still good buying information."
- iPhone, Android
"One scan and it will show you all the places an item is available online, and near you," says Michelle Madhok, the founder of SheFinds.com. Shoppers can also hunt for a product by snapping a picture some items, or saying its name. A hunt for the game "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" on PlayStation 3, regularly $60, turned up a new copy for as little as $36 online -- and a note that the seller didn't have any reliability rating. Local results were plentiful, too, although none were below sticker price. Google Shopper also integrates with other Google products, letting users get Google Maps directions to that local store or check the latest daily deals via Google Offers, she says. Local listings note availability, although Madhok says it's still a good idea to call and confirm. (Clicking on a store listing includes the option to call.) A Google spokeswoman says the feeds are updated on a regular basis.
- iPhone, Android
"As a consumer it pays to keep track of what Amazon is doing," says Mitchell. If there's a cheaper price online, they're often the site that has it, she says, so it's worthwhile to try the free price-check app, which lets users search by scanning a barcode, snapping a picture or saying or typing in the product name. (Users on other platforms, including BlackBerry and Windows, can try the Amazon Mobile app, which offers the same price-checking capabilities, but requires an extra click or two to access them among other features in the app.) A $450 Dyson AM02 tower fan at Sears came up as cheap as $339 on the site. The catch with both Amazon apps, of course, is that they only check prices on Amazon. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
- iPhone, Android
At $5 for one-year access, Consumer Reports' offering is among the priciest price-compare apps. But users also get the group's expert ratings, reviews and buying advice, which cost $30 a year to see online, says Dworsky. Shoppers can scan a barcode, type in a product or look for top picks by category. Searches for a "best buy"-rated $60 Expert Finish steam iron, for example, turned up online prices as cheap as $49 at TechLoops.com, and also pointed to a local Best Buy that had it in stock. App users can also access brand reliability ratings for single-brand retailers like Gap or Cole Haan. Users can't access auto ratings, however, and complaints about the app on iTunes say some ratings aren't up-to-date. Spokesman Kevin McKean says the ratings are CR's latest, but because the nonprofit buys and tests everything itself, some categories may not have ratings for every item, or have them immediately.