Christmas shopping with your smartphone

Forget writing a list and checking it twice - when it comes to getting the best festive buys, your smartphone is the most impressive bargain-hunter around. Rhodri Marsden reports

It's taken us a while to get used to the idea of buying products over the internet. Even last year, a survey conducted by online marketing firm PoLR showed that 53 per cent of us might, after doing all our research online, still opt to go into a store to buy a product rather than battle with the online checkout; apparently we find shipping costs offputting, and we like to actually see the item at close quarters before buying – not to mention the delight of interaction with real human beings. But online shopping is booming despite the recession: British consumers spent £3.8bn online in August – some 16 per cent higher than the same month last year – and our new-found inseparability from our iPhones, Blackberrys and Android phones is opening up another avenue of online shopping in the run up to Christmas. With companies introducing catalogues and online stores in the form of smartphone apps, with mobile coupons being increasingly used to lure customers, and a swathe of barcode-reading apps to better inform us where bargains are to be found, the smartphone is on the verge of becoming a perfect shopping companion – not least because it'll never complain about its feet hurting.

While mobile browser technology has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and the prospect of searching the web for information from a handset is no longer as gruelling as it once was, online stores that are generally designed with a larger screen in mind rarely translate well to mobile handsets; even when the website supposedly has a version tailored for mobiles, the display of products is often too small, the fields to enter text are too fiddly and the all-important "buy now" buttons can be hard to press. But smartphone apps, with their standardised display formats that are guaranteed to look identical from phone to phone, are beginning to suggest themselves to companies as an ideal product showcase (see timeline). The online grocery retailer Ocado is one notable example; it has received praise from across the board for the usability of its iPhone app, and particularly the way it dovetails with the use of the Ocado website from a normal computer. "You can keep adding items to your basket from your kitchen or on the go, wherever you are," says Leon McComish, author of "It's just a great shopping experience, and for Ocado to have done it so well is a huge achievement." Industry heavyweights such as Amazon are, unsurprisingly, also at the forefront of developments – but a number of "store-in-an-app" launches, such as the one recently unveiled by Tommy Hilfiger, are currently restricted to the USA only. The costs involved with localising online stores means that the US market will inevitably be used as a testing ground.

But in the absence of a full range of dedicated smartphone stores in the UK, an emerging breed of app – the barcode reader – is at least helping us find where we can pick up a particular item at the lowest cost. These apps have been popular with the Japanese (who are even more wedded to their phones than we are) for some time; they depend on clever use of your phone's built-in camera to translate a barcode – be it the standard one that we're all familiar with, or its D cousin known as a QR Code – into information about price and availability.

For once, the iPhone hasn't been at the forefront of this, thanks to the inability of its camera to autofocus; the Android platform initially made the biggest strides ahead. But one company, Occipital, managed to get around the iPhone's technical issues, and the resulting app, RedLaser, is now the preeminent barcode-reading app – in fact it was last week's best-selling app in the USA. After scanning an item, the associated number is transmitted to RedLaser's server, which then trawls various online sources and presents you with the information it has found. Of course, the success of the barcode-reading experience is only going to work if the data that's being searched is comprehensive and up to date, and Occipital co-founder Vikas Reddy admits that certain types of products work better than others. "If the item is unusual and is only available in one store, the results won't be so good. But for electronics, books, DVDs, office and kitchen equipment, it's incredibly useful – particularly if you do your search while standing in a store that offers price matching; you can just show them the screen and they'll be obliged to knock money off your purchase."

The way these barcode apps currently work is a rather ad hoc process, and unfortunately certain kinds of products (particularly clothes, which tend not to have uniform barcodes) are destined to remain impassive to being scanned for the foreseeable future. Neither is scanning particularly fast; a steady hand is required to get the barcode in focus – nothing like the speedy supermarket checkout beep. But workarounds are in development; one available barcode reader for iPhone and Android called SnapTell is able to convert a camera snap of the front of a book or game into price and product information. And, as Reddy predicts, the company that achieves full 3D recognition of products from camera images will be onto a surefire winner.

The technology behind RedLaser is already being put to other uses; is an iPhone app that returns tasting notes and food matches from a quick barcode scan of a bottle of wine; another, FoodScanner, allows you to keep track of calorie consumption by scanning the labels of food products as you munch your way through them. But the real future of mobile shopping is destined to be NFC, or Near Field Communication; phones with NFC chips built in could, in theory, be used to automatically pay from anything from a bus journey to a Christmas turkey, and you wouldn't even need to get out your credit card. Starbucks has taken some steps forward in mobile payment (see box) but the moment where your phone not only becomes the research tool and the shop but also your wallet is a few years away. For the time being however, it's not a bad replacement for window shopping – particularly when the weather's this bad.

Scan before you shop: Instant savings

* iPhone RedLaser: £1.19 from the App Store; currently four-star rated and the market leader.

* pic2shop: free of charge; the first to enable barcode reading on the iPhone, but it has since been overtaken by RedLaser.

* SnapTell: free app, incorporates picture recognition as well as barcodes; latest version introduced UK prices.

* Android Barcode Scanner: Basic scanner that returns price information, free from the Android Market Shop.

* Savvy: another free app, also incorporates wish lists and alerts when a product price drops below a certain level.

* SmartShopping To Go: also free – essentially a front end for the website.

Mobile shopping: A history

* July 2008 Apple launches its App Store; Chanel is one of the first to use the platform for marketing, with images of its haute couture show along with a Chanel store locator. An app along similar lines followed from Ralph Lauren in October 2008.

* September 2008 eBay's iPhone app was available in the US from July, but the UK had to wait until September before they could enter the frenzied world of mobile auctions. More than $400m has been spent worldwide via this app so far this year.

* November 2008 Kraft becomes a pioneer with iFood, by achieving the unlikely feat of getting US residents to part with 99 cents for a heavily branded meal-planning and shopping list app; it reached the top of the best-selling paid apps.

* May 2009 Reebok unleashes YourReebok, an app which allows you to design and customise your own trainers and then purchase a pair from between £80 and £100. Nike followed suit with its NIKEiD app in October 2009.

* July 2009 Ocado launches its widely-praised supermarket delivery app in the UK.

* September 2009 Starbucks takes a leap into the unknown with mobile payment system; if you're in a Starbucks in Seattle, Cupertino or Mountain View, its Card Mobile app lets you pay for your cappuccino using a barcode displayed on your iPhone, which then debits the sum from your Starbucks Card balance.

* October 2009 Amazon finally brings its app to Apple's UK store, along with its "Amazon Remembers" feature. Take a picture of a product you're thinking of buying; Amazon will try and match it with a product in their store and email you the details and a reminder to buy.

* November 2009 Domino's Pizza (which has accepted orders over the internet for 10 years) celebrates a decade at the forefront of pizza-purchasing technology by launching an iPhone app which lets you order and track the progress of your pizza.

* December 2009 IKEA release its 2010 catalogue via an iPhone app; sadly there's no online ordering as yet, so you'll still have to make that long trip to a soulless industrial estate in the new year in order to get your hands on your flatpack furniture.

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