Comparing on the go

by SteveBayle on December 24, 2009

In today’s article in The New York Times, the last section is well worth reading in full, as it focuses on using smartphones to shop and highlights Red Laser and Shop Savvy. It also pinpoints the weakness of bar code scanners and mentions Google Goggles.

COMPARING ON THE GO If inspiration has not struck and you find yourself milling around the mall, there are still some excellent comparison-shopping tools to use on the spot.

RedLaser, a bar code-scanning app that recognizes the product you are looking at and then goes online to find other prices, has proved to be a huge hit on the iPhone App Store.

Part of its brilliance is you don’t have to take a picture of the bar code, you just frame the code with the camera and it quickly and automatically scans and returns results. When you know the Web price, you can decide if it’s worth paying extra to have the gift right away — think of it as an optional late fee.

In the past I’ve relied mostly on the ShopSavvy app for Android, which is now also available for the iPhone. Although the bar code reader can be a bit finicky, it returns not only online pricing but also prices at nearby stores. It gives you an option of calling the store or getting directions.

Bar code scanners do have a weakness. They work best for products that are distributed nationally to a variety of stores, items like books, CDs, DVDs and electronics. They don’t work as well on items exclusive to a single chain — those products may have a proprietary code. They tend not to work well on items like clothing and groceries, either.

Some of these weaknesses may be overcome by Google Goggles for Android phones. Using the camera, it conducts a visual search. It can scan writing as well as bar codes, so it can search results based on the writing on a toy’s box, a logo or a label. Sometimes that returns a result when a bar code doesn’t work. But it’s a last-ditch effort: the app is still a work in progress, and doesn’t always produce a useful result.

It may not be in the best holiday spirit, but when you’re pressed for time in the gift-giving season, you really can phone it in.

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