In the history of shopping, there are two defining epochs: before smartphones and after. Before smartphones, shoppers lived in an information desert. The Internet helped a bit, but stores still held the upper hand, and the joy of saving some money was outweighed by the headache of finding the best price online. After smartphones and their fast data feeds arrived, though, the balance of power shifted to consumers.
Now there are applications for just about every aspect of shopping, ranging from instant price comparisons to green ratings of products to ensuring that items are approved by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Here's a quick roundup of some of the better offerings.
Price Comparison and Barcode Scanning Apps
ShopSavvy reads barcodes with a smartphone camera and automatically compares prices among tens of thousands of retailers; it offers product reviews as well. (Free for Android and iPhone.)
Red Laser, by Occipital, was the first player in bar-code scanning and has amazingly good scanning tech -- so good that online auction giant eBay (EBAY) purchased Red Laser in July. (Free for iPhone.) Amazon (AMZN) just rolled out the latest version of its own barcode-scanning and price-comparison application, Amazon Mobile, but reviews have not been hugely positive for the barcode-scanning portion.
Save Benjis searches various online vendors for prices and gives reviews but has no barcode scanning. It does, however, have a nice interface that many people seem to like. (Available free for iPhone.)
Compare Everywhere is a popular Android barcode-scanning app that compares prices and can tap in Android's GPS capability to give turn-by-turn directions to nearby stores stocking the item -- a pretty nifty feature. (Free for Android.)
Compare Me is an app I love because it simplifies the sometimes mind-bending difficulty of per-ounce or per-pound comparisons between products. The app can handle both English and metric volume units as well as number of pieces. Math majors need not download this app but mere mortals will love it. (Free on iPhone.)
Local Shopping Apps
Shop Nearby lets shoppers figure out which stores near them carry the product they're looking for. Unfortunately, you can't tell whether the product is in stock, so you still may have to call the store to make sure it's worth the trip. (Free for iPhone.)
Slifter is another local-shopping app that lets you search by product to see prices, get images of products and maps of vendors carrying the product. It also includes a personalized shopping list. Get local product search, prices, images, maps and a personalized shopping list with this neat app. (Free for iPhone and BlackBerry.)
iGarage Sale is a garage-sale finder for the dumpster-diving bon vivants who never, ever pay retail. It collects current garage-sale information from Craigslist and keep information up to date. ($1.99 for iPhone.)
Green Shopping Apps
The biggest name in this category is GoodGuide, which allows shoppers to scan a barcode and instantly get environmental, health, social responsibility and product-safety ratings put together by GoodGuide's team of scientists and researchers. This is a powerful app for leading the green life. (Free for iPhone.)
Perhaps my favorite app is Be Nice to Bunnies. It lets shoppers put in product names and company names to check to make sure their purchases weren't tested on animals and conform to very high standards for animal cruelty prevention. ($1.99 for iPhone.)
These are just a handful of the dozens of apps out there for shopping, so make sure to search the various app stores if you have a more specific use in mind.