Dialing your smartphone for store coupons


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Our smartphones have moved well beyond such pedestrian activities as making calls. They have turned into organizational hubs for all aspects of our lives — from health to wealth.

They’ve even made discount hunting incredibly easy and convenient. Couponing is now as simple as swiping your screen. With the right arsenal of apps, you can effortlessly navigate sales, compare prices and even get money back on some of the items you buy. And the best of these apps require little to no effort on your part.

If you’re a savvy shopper, you’ll do well to have each of the following types of apps installed on your phone. Unless otherwise indicated, the apps mentioned are free and available on Android and iOS.

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Couponing and discount-hunting apps

Many retailers offer their own individual apps. You can download them to see the coupons and promotions they offer. Best Buy, for example, has an app that shows you all of its deals, as well as a “deal of the day.” This is useful, but a possibly more convenient way to go about couponing is to download a single app that compiles a massive list of retailers’ coupons.

“There are a ton of money-saving apps out there,” says Kendal Perez, frugal living expert and blogger at HassleFreeSavings.com. She’s also associated with Coupon Sherpa, an app that lists coupons from hundreds of retailers and restaurants.

Coupon Sherpa is essentially a database of discounts, offers and coupons. You can look for coupons near you, and you can save your favorite stores. Most conveniently, many retailers let you simply show them the coupon’s bar code on your phone at checkout.

RetailMeNot is another popular couponing app. Like Coupon Sherpa, it tells you which stores have coupons available, and you can show the cashier your phone to get the discount. With RetailMeNot, you also can enable alerts for nearby deals.

Here’s an outside-the-box option for nabbing discounts with your phone: The online marketplace Raise recently released an iPhone app that lets you search for discounted gift cards, buy them with your phone and then use them at checkout.

Like any discount gift card site, Raise allows sellers to get rid of their unwanted gift cards by selling them for less than face value. This allows buyers to get the full value of the card at a discount. Ideally, here’s how their app would help you save money, in store.

Let’s say you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. You open the app and see there’s a digital $10 Starbucks gift card you can buy for $8. You purchase it, the card shows up instantly on your app and you show it to the cashier, saving you $2.

Of course, that’s an ideal situation. Retailers, gift card availability and savings will vary.

Price-comparison apps

Amazon’s huge online marketplace makes it simple and convenient for consumers to find low prices. They’ve become a major competitor for stores like Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart. As a result, some of these brick-and-mortar stores will price match an in-store item, should you find it cheaper online.

Of course, there are rules and restrictions that apply to these price-matching policies. But the shopper now has the advantage of comparing online prices with in-store prices. There are a few apps that make it easy to do this.

With RedLaser, you scan an in-store item’s bar code, and it will tell you how much that item costs at different online retailers. What’s more, the app also tells you if there are special deals on the item at nearby stores. You can also keep your store loyalty cards on the app and save items you like for viewing later. ShopSavvy is a similar app. You scan an item’s bar code, and it tells you how much that item costs online and at nearby stores. You can also enable alerts for new deals.

PriceJump, available for the iPhone or as a Chrome browser extension, is another contender, and it includes a feature that makes the bottom line pretty simple. Its “best” price column tells you exactly where to find the best price in each of three categories: local, Amazon and online.

Whichever app you choose, it will serve its purpose if it allows you to scan an item and then compare prices for it.

Grocery savings apps

Most of us don’t have time to search for coupons, clip them and then fumble with them at checkout. There are a few apps available that let you bypass the traditional couponing ritual and still save money.

Grocery Pal lets you browse for coupons digitally, then save and print them. It will also tell you what’s on sale at nearby stores and allow you to create shopping lists based on those coupons and sales.

If you’re a frugal shopper, you probably know it saves to compare the unit price of items. Apples2Oranges, available for the iPhone or iPod Touch, will do the math for you, making it easy to find the better buy. Let’s say you’re deciding whether to buy 250-count vitamins for $11.99 or 86 for $4.99. Enter these amounts in the app and it will show you the cost per unit, making it easy to compare prices.

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Rewards apps

“Rewards apps like Shopkick represent yet another way to save money,” Perez says. Shopkick is an app that rewards you with gift cards when you “check in” at various retailers. There’s no need to buy anything, either. You’re rewarded for visiting the store, not spending money. Of course, the app requires the effort of taking out your phone and enabling it to track your location each time you’re in store.

“I’ve tried to use this app, but I’m not very good about ‘checking in’ to places,” admits Perez. “So I always forget to gather as many points as possible to earn gift cards. … My cousin uses this app like crazy — she’s saving up for a gas gift card.”

Because the rewards are free, most apps in this category require some small effort. With Ibotta or Checkout 51, for example, you can earn rebates on purchases (mostly grocery items) you buy in store. But there are a couple of caveats. For one, you have to scan your receipt to prove your purchase.

Also, most of the rebates associated with these rewards apps are small.

“Don’t expect to get hoards of money from these apps,” Perez says. After several months of using the app, Perez says she has just over $7 accrued on Checkout 51. “But savings are savings.”

Individual stores may offer rewards apps, too. The burger chain Carl’s Jr., for example, gives rewards for purchases, but only if you check in using its app. You may find these apps useful if there’s a store or restaurant you frequent.

The future of mobile couponing

Google Wallet and Apple Pay offer a novel concept: paying for items without pulling out your credit card. Near-field communication, or NFC, makes it possible to do this. However, this doesn’t seem much more convenient — you may not have to pull out your wallet, but you still have to pull out a smartphone. The technology may be novel, but it requires about the same amount of effort.

That being said, the appeal of NFC payments may be the convenience of using them with an existing money-saving app. Companies like Starbucks have capitalized on this, creating an app that lets you earn rewards, redeem gift cards, pay and leave tips for baristas. While mobile wallet technology has yet to become the norm, it seems to be most convenient when combined with other consumer features.

Apple may be exploring the possibilities of mobile couponing with iBeacon. The technology allows establishments to set up “beacons” that communicate directly with your phone. While this can be used for a variety of purposes, from welcoming people to sporting events to educating museum patrons — as the developer website suggests — retailer promotions and discount offers seem like a natural fit for the technology.

As mobile couponing becomes more convenient, it only seems natural to couple it with NFC payment technology. In the meantime, there’s no shortage of these types of apps available, making it incredibly easy to save some cash and find a good deal.