Technology has dramatically changed the retail game. Not long ago, Black Friday postmortem analysis focused on the best-selling products and the winners and losers among big brick-and-mortar retailers. Now it's what percentage of best-sellers at bricks-and-mortars come courtesy of Pinterest's promoted pins, and will the specter of an Amazon Prime delivery drone be replacing Santa's reindeer-led sleigh.
In this age of competitive shopping, smartphone, tablet and computer apps are turning any consumer's commercial excursion—no matter how arduous—into a highly personalized and, best of all, productive experience. The savviest shoppers know how to use technology to plow through a daily avalanche of deals. Standing in line on Black Friday, many shoppers found themselves best served using the time to take to the Twitter app on their smartphone to peruse offers.
Here are 10 of the most powerful and helpful apps to maximize time and money and guide you through the "crunch time" of the holiday shopping season, from the research you need to do at home and online all the way through outsmarting the "in-store" experience.
—By Bob Diddlebock, Special to CNBC.com
Organization comes first, before actual shopping.
Finally, a way to put junk email to good use. PeeqPeeq collects all those promotional ads that land in your email's inbox, such as from Zappos, Groupon and Newegg, and spits them out in a colorful catalog. Think Flipboard, but all ads. You can bookmark an ad or send it to friends by email or text message. In addition, PeeqPeeq can organize all of your ads into categories like clothing, sports and so on.
What if you really like one ad in particular but know that if you rip it out and stash it somewhere, you'll never remember where?
Pounce lets shoppers scan images they spot in print ads with their iPhone or iPad's camera, then purchase the item online from the retailer who ran the ad. Elapsed time: 30 seconds. Using image-recognition technology that bridges the physical and online worlds of e-commerce, Pounce cuts through the clutter attached to pulp-and-paper shopping and makes checkout a two-click breeze. Pounce's grand plan is to allow purchasing of any product in any print ad.
Next up: magazines and billboards.
How will you ever pay for all those gifts?
Even with retailers desperately competing to offer the best deals, those gift bills add up, and the closer it gets to Christmas, the hastier the decision a shopper is likely to make. Plastic is not the only answer. It's a good idea to fund a portion of this year's holiday spending bill with the help of prior years' items.
If you have a closetful of unworn or unwanted women's clothes, for example, go to Poshmark. It takes just a minute to snap a photo of an item you wish to sell or swap, write a description, set a price, and post it in a "closet" on the online marketplace. For its trouble, Poshmark takes a 20 percent cut of any sale. It also hosts virtual "parties" where mavens can socialize over various themes—"Fall Trends," "Chanel"—you name it—and rhapsodize about fashion's impact on their lives.
Traffic as the holidays get closer could rightly keep shoppers at home. What could be more frustrating than being placed forever on hold, then giving up and setting out on a nerve-racking drive to a store, only to find out that whatever you planned to buy isn't available—which you could have found out by phone, if only someone at the store didn't keep you on hold forever.
The up-and-coming TalkTo gets you fast answers to questions you pose to local businesses via text. When you don't want to make a phone call or get stuck on hold, or can't find what you want online, use TalkTo to compare prices and check product inventory. And it's not just for shopping. You can use TalkTo to find a table at a restaurant, or even book an appointment. Response time—also via text—is usually under five minutes. Slick, fast, informative.
Focused on an item you've found online but want it at a better price? Prices change so rapidly, how can you ever know you're getting the best deal? Plenty of apps have that fear covered, using various methods.
PoachIt will track a particular product you've flagged and tell you when it goes on sale—no small task when retailers raise or drop prices at a moment's notice. PoachIt also will send you documented coupon codes for discounted items. Click on Poachit's "Deals" section to find lots of marked-down products.
When you're in a store, scan a product's bar code and RedLaser will tell you if the item can be found at a better price at a nearby store or online. RedLaser also can keep product lists, which is helpful when you're, say, shopping for food and gifts at the same time. Named for the laser scanner at checkouts, the eBay-owned RedLaser also records all the items you've looked up so you can go back and find things later.
Turn on Shopkick in a store—say, Target or Best Buy—and get product discounts for trying on clothes, scanning product bar codes and making purchases. The app gives users points (called "kicks"), which can be redeemed for gift cards. Click on a store and check on deals and opportunities to pick up even more kicks. Users can also link their Visa debit or credit card to a Shopkick account so they'll automatically get points for certain purchases.
Now that you've got the best deal, time to pay the piper. Don't go fumbling through your wallet or pocketbook and try to do the complicated math in your head of which credit card has the most left on its credit limit and the lowest APR while several angry shoppers behind you in line wonder what's taking so long.
Clutch is a Swiss Army knife–type app that can do it all. It features a mobile wallet that interfaces with Apple's passbook, a loyalty card app, a gift app, personalized shopping feeds, wish lists, birthday reminders, daily deals, coupons, comparison shopping and more. It even gives reward points. In short, Clutch can reduce a pile of plastic to a handy app that adds another shortcut to the shopping experience.
The most difficult aspect of shopping can be finding the right gift for the right person. That person in your life who wants and needs nothing: Could they make it any more difficult? Or maybe that special someone in your life knows exactly what they want—you just have no idea where to find it. For all that one can find in a Target or Wal-Mart or even at a high-end retailer, there's much more creative shopping to be done with the help of technology.
With 10 million users—many of them young female fashionistas—and 200,000 stores, Wanelo has become a player in the social shopping space by letting consumers discover and share things they want, need and love (hence the name WAnt, NEed, LOve). Click on the image of a product—a white dress, beauty accessories—and go directly to its store. There's also a "Stories" element that lets users group products and tie them together with a short written explanation.
You might not find a solar-powered tent for four in a Wal-Mart circular, but you will find it on Fancy. Fancy is a one-stop shop for products that range from the odd collectibles—Pac Man paper clips, anyone?—to more classic luxury goods and apparel. Part store, blog, magazine and wish list, Fancy showcases it all in a "crowd-curated" catalog. See something you like? Click on the ice cream pop–shaped "Fancy" button to indicate that you fancy it. Men's and women's fashion, gadgets, art, food, media—whatever it is, chances are that Fancy has it and you can buy it on the spot.