By Kevin Hunt
Published September 10, 2006
I just got back from a mock shopping trip with a real expert -- a cell phone.
This Nokia S60 with Scanbuy Shopper software, a free download from Scanbuy of New York (www.scanbuy.com), gathers price comparisons, reviews and product information from the Web.
Whether you're pricing a jug of Tide detergent or an LCD television, Scanbuy Shopper consults PriceGrabber.com, Shopping.com and Amazon.com, among others, before displaying information on your cell phone's screen.
All you do is activate the Scanbuy Shopper program, then use the phone's touch pad to enter the product's eight-digit bar code found on the desired item's box. It works only with Java-enabled services from providers T-Mobile, Cingular and Sprint. (Depending on the plan, each call will cost about 25 cents. Consult Scanbuy's Web site for a list of compatible phones.)
Future Scanbuy versions will do it paparazzi style, entering the digits automatically after you take a picture of the bar code with the phone's built-in camera.
Fortunately, this was only an impulse-buying drill. It's scary how many of us wake up, decide we're going to buy a plasma TV and walk into a store, uninformed and unwitting, clutching a credit card.
On this trip to a local Best Buy, Scanbuy Shopper was only as good as the available bar codes. It could not save an impulse buyer from paying too much for that plasma set because most electronics stores like Best Buy do not leave boxed, big-screen televisions (and their bar codes) on the showroom floor. They'll display one of each TV model, then leave the remaining, ready-to-buy sets in an adjacent storeroom.
To use Scanbuy Shopper, the customer must have access to a boxed item with the manufacturer's eight-digit bar code, also known as a Universal Product Code. Don't confuse the 20-digit store bar code for the Universal Product Code.
So I took the Nokia phone around the store to various smaller items with boxed, bar-coded stock available on the shelves, from a $500 home-theater speaker system to a $100 HDMI cable. Most times, Best Buy prices were competitive with online prices.
- A Samsung virtual-surround sound system with two speakers and a subwoofer cost $499.99 at Best Buy, but Scanbuy Shopper found a better price, $474.99, at Sears via Yahoo! Shopping. There happened to be a Sears at the other end of the shopping plaza, so if I were actually buying the system, I could have saved $25 with a short walk.
- A Sony DVD player that cost $68.99 at Best Buy showed up on Yahoo! Shopping at $59.99 from J&R Electronics in New York. But the search did not show the cost of shipping. When I checked later, it would cost $10 to deliver it to my house, wiping out the savings (and then some).
- A Toshiba 15-inch LCD television with a built-in DVD player that cost $499.99 at Best Buy, though, was substantially less ($380) at Butterfly Photo, an online merchant with which I'm unfamiliar. Even after shipping, which I later found would cost $39, it was still a better deal than Best Buy. But I'd want to know more about Butterfly Photo's reputation before placing an online order.
- Scanbuy Shopper also found a 6-foot HDMI cable from Monster Cable, $96.99 at Best Buy, for $81.81 on Amazon. Too bad it could not alert the consumer to the absurdity of paying so much, from any merchant, for a digital audio-video cable that typically connects an upconverting DVD player to an HDTV. A comparable 6-foot HDMI cable costs as little as $5 elsewhere (monoprice.com).
Scanbuy Shopper was a lot more fun at Target where, out of curiosity, I punched in the code for an eight-piece set of pots and pans from Kitchen Essentials by Calphalon. The Target price ($149.99) matched the best online price from Amazon, but Scanbuy Shopper also offered enough user comments ("not durable," "don't bother" and "non-stick coating wears off") to convince any shopper that this wasn't such a hot deal.
Other free software, like NextCode's Connexto (www.connexto.com) and NeoMedia's PaperClick (www.paperclick.com) also offers comparison prices. GPShopper (www.gpshopper.com) and its Slifter (www.slifter.com) technology even maintains a shopping list on a cell phone, updating with local and online prices.
Any of these might help the impulse buyer, but there's no substitute for old-fashioned research when buying a big-ticket item. Know what you want, what it does and compare prices before going to the store. Use the Scanbuy Shopper as a consultant, not your guide.
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune