Absurd or Brilliant? How to Save Money, and Even Make a Little, As You Shop

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Whenever a store has a sale, it points out how much the shopper would “save” by purchasing the discounted merchandise. This is ridiculous, of course. If the item is something you wouldn’t have otherwise purchased, you’re spending, which is the polar opposite of saving. But new smartphone apps can actually help shoppers save—yes, genuinely save, not come out as net losers—on excursions to the mall. One app even pays shoppers to visit stores, and no purchase is ever required.

That last part is key because, again, a shopper buying $75 shoes marked down from $100 isn’t really saving $25; he’s spending $75. So how do these apps work?

The Boston Globe details how one, Shopkick, gives shoppers credits (called “kicks”) for walking through the front door, and subsequently visiting different sections and scanning items in stores like Best Buy, Target, and Home Depot. Once enough “kicks” are amassed, they can be redeemed for gift cards, movie tickets, and other merchandise. Shopkick members also earn kicks by making certain purchases, but it’s not necessary to spend a dime. The Globe writer describes his adventures collecting kicks without touching his wallet:

For instance, at Best Buy I picked up 10 kicks just for scanning the bar code on a Hewlett-Packard Co. inkjet printer; at Target, I got a bunch more by scanning the new Lego Pirates of the Caribbean video game. Such offers are designed to turn shopping into a sort of treasure hunt, where you enter stores you might otherwise never visit, and check out items you didn’t think you’d want.

There’s an obvious danger in picking up stuff in stores you hadn’t planned on buying. Do so and there’s a much better chance you’ll buy it. Studies show that once a consumer touches something in a store, he becomes attached to it, regards it as more valuable, and is more likely to want to purchase it.

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Shopkick also tracks each user’s visits to participating retailers, and offers strategically concocted coupons and discounts to push shoppers over the edge and tempt them into making unplanned purchases in stores.

If you’re the type of impulsive shopper swayed by an unexpected 20% discount produced on the spot especially for you, then it’s foolish to think you’d genuinely be saving any money by using Shopkick. Take a look in the mirror—and at how stuffed your closets are—and use the app at your own discretion.

A Mint.com post, meanwhile, digs into another shopping app designed to help consumers save, at least in theory. The PriceCheck&Save app, like Shopkick, can be used to scan bar codes when out shopping. It’ll compare prices for items scanned at various online and brick-and-mortar stores, like many apps do. But this app also has button that says “Save to 401(k).” Press it, and the dollar value of the item (say $100) is put toward your retirement.

Furthermore, the app will taunt you by showing you how much monthly income that $100 will turn into in retirement if you save it instead of buying your eighth pair of headphones. (The app can make a good guess because you’ve signed into your 401(k), which knows how old you are and what types of investments you hold.)

The idea here is to stop impulse purchases and simultaneously help users prepare for retirement through guilt and fear. Will it be used that way? Could the impulse to spend really be turned into an impulse to truly save? Who knows. Whether these apps genuinely help shoppers to save or merely enable them to spend more depends on who is holding the smartphone in hand.

Come to think of it, the concept of going shopping without actually buying things sorta sounds like torture—for people who love shopping, and also for people who hate it.

(MORE: Consumers in China and India Love Shopping Way More Than Americans)