Apps Let Holiday Shoppers Skip The Computer

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Consumers have become accustomed to buying from online retailers like Amazon. In the latest technological twist this holiday season, many buyers are using smart phone apps to find deals and special gifts while shopping in old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Retailers are cautiously optimistic about the start of the holiday shopping season. They report sales are up from this time last year, even though discounts aren't quite as steep.

And as April Dembosky reports, some savvy shoppers are turning to new technology to find a bargain.

APRIL DEMBOSKY: For years, online shopping sites have been trying to bring the mall to us, but a lot of new features on our smartphones are coaxing us back to the parking lots and perfumed department stores. Several applications use the phone's built-in camera to scan product bar codes, then spit back reviews or price comparisons. Some apps will even recommend the best places to get lunch, or where to find a public bathroom.

Mr. ERIC VAN DUSEN: Patrons only, patrons only, patrons only, Bancroft Clothing Company.

DEMBOSKY: That's my friend Eric Van Dusen. We met up on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for some iPhone-assisted shopping. We try the Adidas store. Eric picks up the green superstar track suit with yellow stripes - just the right size for his 6-year-old son. He runs his hand over the fabric, then runs the red laser app over the tag. It gives him a list of competing prices at nearby stores. But you have to drive to them to save a couple dollars.

He tries Amazon's scanner next.

Mr. VAN DUSEN: Ba-da-boom. They have that color here. See, that color's even cuter.

DEMBOSKY: The cheapest price is 44.99, online, with free holiday shipping.

Mr. VAN DUSEN: The red laser question is: Is it cheaper at Target, where I could just go later? And the Amazon question is: Bam, mail it to my house right now.

DEMBOSKY: But then he glances over at the store sale display, and spots a red track suit with white stripes.

Mr. VAN DUSEN: See, but then this one - last year's - is only 30 bucks. See, and that's why we're in the stores because that's 15 bucks cheaper than Amazon.

DEMBOSKY: Another way Amazon is trying to lure us back online is with the iPad. The company launched its new iPad app last month, called Window Shop. Amazon's Sam Hall says you can glide up, down, forward and back through women's jeans, video games and automotive parts.

Mr. SAM HALL (Amazon): It's really analogous to, you know, walking by a bunch of shop windows and seeing what you're interested in.

DEMBOSKY: If you want to make your shopping experience even more virtual, try buying virtual gifts for your virtual homestead, on Facebook.

(Soundbite of online game Frontierville)

DEMBOSKY: More than 215 million people play online games from Zynga, like Frontierville. Players create their own virtual settlement, complete with log cabins...

(Soundbite of online game Frontierville)

DEMBOSKY: ...wagons...

(Soundbite of online game Frontierville)

DEMBOSKY: ...goats...

(Soundbite of online game Frontierville)

DEMBOSKY: ...and hedgehogs.

(Soundbite of online game Frontierville)

DEMBOSKY: Zynga's Mark Scaggs says plenty of players will use real money to buy this virtual stuff for their friends this Christmas.

Mr. MARK SCAGGS (Zynga): Here's the falafel. Here's a pig. Here's a tree. Here's some hay. Like, this is very valuable to me. It's very useful.

DEMBOSKY: More useful than another scented candle?

(Soundbite of online game)

DEMBOSKY: Or coffee mug?

(Soundbite of online game)

DEMBOSKY: Bubble bath?

(Soundbite of online game)

For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky.

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