Smart phone apps level playing field for comparing prices

Carlos Nedd is shopping for inkjet printers at the Summerlin Costco. He has his eye on an HP Officejet Pro 8500.

More accurately, his eye is on his iPhone, which displays the prices of the same printer online and at other retail stores nearby. (Costco wants $269.99.)

Nedd is one of a growing legion of consumers using smartphones — Internet-enabled cell phones — to comparison-shop inside retail stores. According to a survey conducted in December by GfK Roper Consulting, 30 percent of smartphone owners said they do this.

“I always do it,” says Nedd, a video producer who divides his time between Las Vegas and the San Francisco Bay Area. “I’m an electronics junkie, and I try to get more bang for my buck.”

Before smartphones, retailers held a square advantage. Even consumers who performed thorough Internet research faced potential bait-and-switch advertising, upselling and other sales games once they entered a store.

“Salespeople have a vested interest in trying to sell you the stuff — and maybe some extra cables, some batteries — to go with it,” says Jody Rohlena, senior editor of Consumer Reports’ ShopSmart magazine. “But if you’re doing your own research, you’re making your own decisions about what you need, and that puts the power right in your hand.”

Nedd is comparing prices using his iPhone’s Web browser. He has Googled the printer’s name and is visiting the Web sites that may list it cheaper. But there are apps (smartphone applications) that make the process much easier. With ShopSavvy, PriceGrabber and Red Laser — all of which are free — no typing is necessary. Just hold the phone’s camera lens up to a product’s barcode, wait 10 seconds and see exactly where it’s available for the lowest price — either online or at a nearby store.

And smartphones do more than help shoppers compare prices. They can retrieve product reviews, specs and availability.

Clearly, that square advantage is transferring to the consumer.

“The beauty of it is that it’s right there in your pocket or purse,” Rohlena says. “You whip it out and suddenly, you’ve got all this information at your fingertips.”

The most visible way retailers are responding is with their own apps. Designed to build brand loyalty, these apps facilitate some, but never all, important elements of the shopping experience. (The Target, Macy’s and J.C. Penney smartphone apps alert users to weekly specials, for example, while the Town Square mall app helps customers find parking and displays promotions at its various stores.)

Rewarding points or coupons redeemable for discounts is another popular app feature. Retailers including the Gap, Macy’s and American Eagle Outfitters discount customers who use Facebook’s locations feature to “check in” (identify that they’ve walked into a particular store).

“Everybody’s trying to get into the app arena,” Rohlena says, “and some are more useful than others.”

But one task that no retailer app will perform is the one likely to matter most to consumers: comparing the price of a single item across different retailers.

A smiling Costco saleswoman approaches, attempting to distract Nedd from his iPhone.

“Can I help you with anything?” she asks.

“No, thanks,” Nedd says without looking up.

Nedd has found the HP Officejet Pro 8500 a whopping $70 cheaper, after a rebate, at OfficeMax. (And it’s available for in-store pickup at the Boca Park location. His research confirmed it.)

As the saleswoman walks away, the smile seems to transfer from her face to Nedd’s.

“I guess I’m going to OfficeMax,” Nedd says.

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0456.

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