With all the technology at our disposal, it's easy to indulge your inner Veruca Salt: If you want it now, you can pretty much always have it--now. And the following shopping apps make it even easier by using your smartphone's camera.
Now you can search for products without having to type their names (how many E's are in Cheetos again?), compare prices, and even take advantage of paper coupons without having to clip and carry them. Just make sure all this convenience doesn't lull you into buying a bunch of stuff you wouldn't otherwise purchase.
SnipSnap--free for Android and iPhone
We take digital photos and write electronic mail, so why, in 2013, would you bother with paper coupons like some kind of savings-loving caveman? Use SnipSnap to take a picture of a coupon and it magically becomes digitized--text, barcode and all. Plus, you can use the thousands of coupons other people have clipped into the app, easily found via search, or sorted by topic or store. So even if you don't get the Sunday paper, you'll still find plenty of coupons. Save one, and the app even reminds you to use it before it expires--as well as when you walk into the store in question, which is insanely convenient (once you get past the creepiness of background location tracking).
The list of stores is pretty generous--Babies R Us, Macy's, Petco, Michaels, Kohl's, Sephora, Home Depot, tons of others--and there's a good amount of restaurants too, especially fast food ones. Honestly, wouldn't pulling out your phone at the Burger King counter look so much cooler than digging through your wallet for a little rectangle of paper you shoved in there?
Unfortunately, at this time SnipSnap doesn't support manufacturer coupons (you know, the ones you use in the grocery store for specific products; they usually say "Manufacturer coupon" right on them somewhere). But even without them, the app is a gold mine of savings...without all the unpleasant hard work of mining anything.
Pounce--free for iPhone
Pounce is a great idea that's not all the way there yet. Just point your phone at a product in an ad flier and you can buy that product--no trip to the store, or even to the website. But the list of store fliers it works with is pretty light. As of this writing, it's Macy's, Toys R Us, Staples, Ace, Babies R Us, and Target. And both Target and the R-Us stores have really annoying websites with horrible navigation, so even jumping right to the product in question would be a nice feature. But Pounce does even better--the app has your info stored, so it handles the transaction for you. But it needs to include more stores, and it needs to be able to handle rewards programs. And an Android app would be nice. Luckily, Pounce says it's working on adding all those things.
Oh, and you can use it as a QR scanner if you want--those codes just open in your browser. So that's a plus. But unless you find yourself leafing through the ad fliers in the Sunday papers and wishing you could just wiggle your nose and make those things appear, Pounce still needs some work.
RedLaser--free for iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone
Scan a barcode and quickly buy your desired item online: that's what you want, and that's what RedLaser does. Oh, sure, it does other things. You can check out nearby stores on a map and see what kind of deals they have--mostly just advertised sales, but it's easier to scroll through them here than to find and read all the ad fliers. The app can also scan and save your loyalty cards for those stores.
But I had the most fun just walking around my house scanning the barcode on everything and finding out where to buy it online, and for how much. Turns out the special fancy shampoo my husband uses is for sale at five online retailers--only one of which appeared on the first page of Google results when I searched for the product's name. And the cheapest price the app found was $2 cheaper than what Amazon had. (Amazon did not show up in RedLaser's results, for what that's worth.)
Price Check by Amazon--free for iPhone and Android
Speaking of Amazon, everyone's favorite everything store has a barcode scanner in its main Amazon Mobile app, but the Price Check app puts that function front and center. As soon as you launch the app, you can search for a product by typing or speaking its name, scanning a barcode, or even snapping a photo. The photo search works best for things like books, CDs, and movies, but the barcode scanner is pretty much always quicker.
This app is especially handy for scanning all the dry goods in your pantry (or your grocery cart, as you shop) to see if you can get a better deal buying them in bulk from Amazon. For example, one of my favorite recipes calls for an entire packet of Ranch dressing mix, which is $3 at my regular grocer. Turns out I can get 24 packets, at least a year's supply, for $46.51. Can I live with the shame of owning that much Ranch powder to save $25? Sure.
Shopkick--free for iPhone and Android
Shopkick is like a siren luring you to shop: You can check out all your favorite retailers' advertised specials, and "heart" whatever you want to be reminded of when you're actually in the store. Then when you approach the ol' brick-and-mortar, you get a pop-up reminding you of what you'd fancied earlier--and you also earn "kicks," or points, just for walking in the door. (So yeah, it's tracking your location.) Earn enough kicks and you get a reward of your choice, mostly gift cards. You can also earn a kick or two just browsing around the app, but since a $5 Starbucks card is 1250 kicks, just bopping around the app for one kick here and there won't get it done.
So where does the camera come in? At some stores, like Walgreens and Target, you can earn more kicks by scanning specific products on the store shelves. You don't have to buy them, you can just pick one up, scan it, and put it back. The app awards your kicks right away, and then often asks you a few survey questions (did you buy it, are you more likely to buy it now that you've held it in your sweaty little hand, that kind of thing), but you can just tap the 'X' to exit the survey without answering if you want--it's OK; your kicks are already banked. On a recent lunchtime walk I racked up 279 kicks by visiting a Walgreens and a Target and scanning a handful of items at each place.
True, that time I spent is definitely more valuable than earning 22 percent of a $5 gift card, but here's when Shopkick might really make sense: If you shop with kids and you want to keep them busy for a few minutes. Head to Target's beauty department, for example, and let your young'uns scan shampoo and lotion bottles while you hem and haw over which deodorant scent defines you as a person--it's like sending the kids on a little scavenger hunt.
Other stores give you kicks for linking a credit card to the app and actually spending real money, too. The Shopkick app itself is easy to use and has plenty of stores. It'll even show you on a map which participating stores are nearby and how many potential kicks you could earn by showing up. So Shopkick could help your Target habit pay a small dividend--or lead you into temptation by coaxing you into Target even on days you don't actually "need" anything. Don't lose your head!