Redeem coupons right from your iPhone's screen - free until April 22

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Coupon Sherpa is a new app for the iPhone that promises to deliver in-store coupons for more than 100 major chain store brands, such as Zales, GNC, JCPenney, Rite Aid, Macy's, AMC Theatres, and so on.

An app like this doesn't promise to give you every coupon under the sun. It just promises to bring you lots of them, particularly for nationwide chains, and when it comes to savings, simply having timely information is your biggest weapon.

Coupon Sherpa looks around and finds going deals and compiles them in a list, by the type of product being sold. Most of the things you'll find are not for specific items, but for general savings, such as $5 off purchase of $35 (at GNC) or $3 off cakes (Baskin-Robbins) or buy-one-pair-get-one-half-off (Payless).
Each deal is delivered on a screen that looks just like a usual iPhone settings page, such as a preferences pane in the Settings menu. You find out when the deal expires, and often, a link to a Web page (opened in your Safari browser) that often contains more details as they are shown on the company's own site. There's also (back in the app) a button you can use to find the nearest location of the store, based on your current location (U.S. only). While that interface is relatively easy-to-use, the app's cartoon and icon are kind of goofy, and in the iPhone menu, the program is clunkily signified by the sole word "Coupons." The app can be a little crashy, too.

But when it works, there are some worthy tidbits. I found coupons for Barnes and Noble (15% off) and Banana Republic (10% off) that are only offered to people who have those stores' paid annual memberships or credit cards. I'm impressed that the Sherpa found it, but if I weren't already a Barnes and Noble member, it would not have been useful to me. Finding deals you can't always access may be annoying at times, but I find it reassuring, too -- the Sherpa is combing the Web for deals of all sorts. Like the Nepalese mountain guides it's named for, it some of the heavy lifting for you, but you still have to do some legwork of your own if you want to reach the summits of savings.

The makers of the app promise that in many cases, you can use the iPhone itself as a coupon -- just show what you find to the sales clerk. That would mean you can theoretically whip out your phone while you're out shopping and see if there's a deal going at the chain store you're visiting. I'm slightly dubious about that. I have no doubts the Sherpa is wrong (after all, it links to the vendor's websites), but I do have doubts about clerk training. We're not at the level of, say, Japan, where you can just flash your phone (or use it to scan special bar codes) to access deals. Show a web browser page on your phone to the person behind the department store counter and half the time, they'll be unlikely to have gotten word from management that it's a legit offer, or at the very least, they may have to double-check before granting the discount. That's a failing of the stores, though, and not necessarily of this app.

Each coupon's info page has a spot where you can register whether the coupon was accepted so that, presumably, the developers can follow up with the vendor to make sure everyone's on board in the future. There may be hiccups using this process at first, and it wold be nice to have a format that didn't force you to toggle between a web browser and this little program, but it's still promising. And the more we use these kinds of things, the more common they'll become. If I were to read this post in three years, I might chuckle at how primitive cell phone coupons were in 2009.

Normally, Coupon Sherpa is $1.99 using the App Store, but until Wednesday, April 22, it's free, giving you word of random coupons for nothing. Even if you never use it, it will pay for itself. And if you amass enough coupons, you may even be able to afford that iPhone.
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