Have you ever shopped with your cell phone? You will. Don't laugh -- there was a time when no one thought Web shopping would take off, either. But the National Retail Federation, which has a vested interest in such matters, estimated that on Cyber Monday, more than seven million Americans shopped with mobile phones. That was about 6.9% of the total number of digital holiday shoppers, but still, mobile shopping is mushrooming.
But does it work? I gave four of the most popular smartphone shopping apps a chance. Things started smoothly, but pretty soon, my test drive became a disastrous pile-up.
There are lots of shopping apps that will scan items and search for the cheapest local prices, but to do that, you have to have the product in front of you already. I wanted to know what would happen if you needed to find a product in the first place, as many shoppers do. So I decided to unscientifically test the major players in what should be their natural habitat: the holiday shopping season.
At first, I wanted to use the apps the way any eager holiday shopper would: to locate the season's hottest products. So I tried UGG Classic Sparkles Boots (an Oprah's Favorite Thing) and The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1. But since most stores are sold out of those, it wouldn't be fair to ask the apps to perform the impossible, and I settled for brand-name items of more likely availability.
My four apps, all of them free to download and use, are:
Milo Local Shopping for Android
Milo, a site that allows users to see, in real time, whether the stuff they want is available at nearby stores, made headlines earlier this month when eBay purchased it with the intention of integrating its results into its listings. Milo tracks more than 50,000 items and has 140 retail partners.
The Find: Shopping for iPhone
Another mobile offshoot of a pedigreed shopping website, The Find integrates your shopping preferences with your Facebook profile so that friends can share information about stuff they like to buy. Like its Web presence, its app purports to use live store inventory information to locate items you search for. It's also made for Android.
Google Shopper for Android
All local shopping apps have tough competition in Google, which throws Google's arsenal of technological tools (voice commands, barcode scanning, image scanning, collected product reviews) at the task of finding nearby stores that carry your wish list at this very moment. PC World recently declared that arsenal "helps you make sure that you're getting the best price around," but does it really?
Shop Savvy for iPhone and Android
Like Google Shopper, it allows you to either scan an item or input its name to search for it. Its website claims the app "has been downloaded more than 10 millions [sic] times with more than 6.5 million users," which sounds a bit like 3.5 million users decided not to continue use it after downloading it. I hoped to be one of the devotées, so I included it in my test list. Interestingly, ShopSavvy says that keyword search users now account for 15% of its users, which means more shoppers are typing in the names of things they want to locate.
I chose products - just as average consumers would - without regard to whether they might be offered by partners the app makers may have. Instead, I picked things that stood a good chance of being both desirable and available, and I selected one item in three categories: toys, entertainment, and fashion.
* Squinkies Under the Sea Surprize.
Squinkies are one of WalletPop's hottest toys for 2010, but they're not such a big ticket that they can't be located. I picked this Squinkies set because, hypothetically, it's the kind of thing a mermaid-crazed little girl might demand. I also liked it because of the unusual spelling of "surprise". Would the shopping apps get tripped up by it? (As it turned out, no.)
* Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series on DVD
This 26-disc set of the brilliant and popular SyFy series is exactly the kind of big-ticket item typically given as a gift during the holidays. It was released earlier this year, so this is its first Christmas on the market. It has a list price of $200, but Syfy's own Web store is selling the series for 25% off, or $150.
* Michael Kors Collette Grommet Coin Purse
It's small, it's affordable ($68, or $47 on Kors' own site), and because the Kors label is sold all over the place, including at both department stores and his own storefronts, there would be ample chance to find a bargain. Or so I thought.
I used the apps exactly the way a casual shopper would: I entered the name of what I wanted (using the exact name provided by the manufacturers, to be fair). When I got a search result, I chose the cheapest one, as any consumer would do, that was closest to me, just as the apps profess to be able to do.
The rule of the game was that the lowest nearby price was determined the winner of the search round. Then I'd go make sure the item was truly available at the price the app said it would be.
Because I don't live near a Walmart, that ruled out any search result that returned those superstores. Also, because the test was designed to locate in-store items (and avoid paying shipping charges), online sellers were discounted, and I stuck only to local search results. Since they promised to show me which nearby stores had my items in stock, it should have been easy, right?
Was my experience unusual, or do the local TV consumer reporters and tech writers who so endlessly praise this technology actually test it before recommending it?
Putting Local Shopping Mobile Apps to the Test, and Failing Miserably