Showrooming might be a huge holiday headache for traditional retailers, but it's a potent tool for shoppers who want to combine an in-store shopping experience with the low prices of e-commerce sites. A number of free mobile apps streamline this process by allowing you to scan a product's barcode with your smartphone's camera, instantly giving you access to a range of competitors' prices and user reviews. Here are a few of the best.
Amazon's app isn't the most comprehensive -- as you might imagine, it's only giving you Amazon's price as a point of comparison -- but it might be responsible for ticking off the most retailers. When Amazon launched the app last year, it ran a promotion giving 5% discounts to users who used it to send Amazon pricing information on scanned items. Not only was the e-commerce giant openly encouraging showrooming, it was effectively paying customers to gather pricing intelligence, neither of which sat well with bricks-and-mortar retailers.
That promotion is finished, but the app remains a useful tool, allowing you to scan bar codes, see Amazon's price and buy with its mobile-friendly interface.
Another Amazon app, Flow is Price Check with a twist: It doesn't require you to find the bar code. Using technology similar to Google's "Goggles," you can simply point your camera at the cover of a book, album, game or DVD and Amazon will try to identify the product on sight. Like Price Check, it will then pull up the Amazon price and allow you to visit the site to make your purchase there.
If nothing else, Flow wins on "wow" factor -- the image recognition technology is impressive, and the augmented reality interface means that you can simply point the camera at a product and its Amazon price will be superimposed on your field of view. (We're imagining a future where such an app can be used with Google's Project Glass, allowing you to simply look at a product and see better prices – but maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves.)
Of course, the image recognition technology isn't foolproof, so you're always going to get better results from a bar code scan. But if you're self-conscious about openly scanning bar codes at the store, or you simply want a taste of the future, give Flow a try.
This may come as a shock, but Amazon doesn't always have the lowest price on everything. That's why you might find it more useful to get an app that pulls prices from more than just Amazon.
Red Laser, made by eBay and available for free for iPhones and Androids, is one such app. Its name is meant to evoke real-life bar code scanners, though of course it just uses your phone's camera. (It does, however, superimpose a red laser beam over the interface, which is a nice touch.) And it gives a comprehensive listing of both online and local prices, the latter using your phone's GPS.
In our tests, it didn't always bring up the most mobile-friendly version of Amazon's site, but other than that, it worked like a charm. Prices are listed in an intuitive interface, and it has a massive library of bar codes and QR codes. You can even use it to generate QR codes of your own that can be used to share web addresses or data with others.
Google boasts one of the best price-comparison tools on the web, Google Shopper, so it's good to see that it offers a mobile app. Like Flow, Google Shopper can scan both barcodes and the covers of books, albums, DVDs and games. While it lacks Flow's futuristic, augmented-reality interface, the image recognition is excellent and works nearly instantaneously. And it also allows you to search product listings by voice.
The main disadvantage is that Google doesn't show results for every retailer, so you're not getting a comprehensive listing of prices. The most notable exclusion is Amazon, which apparently won't be showing up in any Google Shopper searches going forward due to the service's new pay-to-play model. That's a pretty significant downside to what is otherwise an excellent app; as we see it, a price-comparison app that excludes Amazon results is just as limited as one that only lists Amazon results.
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