By Mitch Lipka
(Reuters) - Attention, shoppers: If you just decided to join the Black Friday shopping crunch but didn't prepare well, don't despair: Just pick up your smartphone. It could be your new best friend.
Even if you haven't invested a week or more reading sales circulars, you can play catch up with the latest mobile shopping applications.
Loaded properly, your phone can help you ensure that the "deal" in front of you really is a deal. It can help you find out what other consumers think of a product before you buy it - or figure out where to buy that hot toy on the biggest shopping day of the year. If you've got a target price in mind, you can set your phone to alert you when the gift you're eyeing hits that price at a store near you.
"Information is power," says Jeff Goldstein, president of PriceGrabber, a web service (with app) that collects pricing from about 4,000 retailers.
The apps are available on iPhones through the iTunes App Store, and Android users should go to Google Play.
LOAD BEFORE YOU GO
Several apps like Fat Wallet's Black Friday App, Black Friday 2013 Ads and DealNews's Black Friday App give consumers the opportunity to search advertised deals. You can view specific stores or certain products and look at copies of printed ads or scroll through a list of deals on a particular product, like digital cameras. You also use the apps to build shopping lists.
Once you've found the sales, you want to make sure you load up on coupons. Retailmenot, CouponCabin and CouponSherpa all deliver discount coupons, and many of which can now be simply flashed at the cash register, where the bar code can be scanned from your phone.
If you're serious, you'll download all three: "They don't all have the same deal," notes Brandon Hunt, co-founder of the site DealScience.com, which collects and sorts deals from top coupon offering sites.
He notes that stores including those owned by Kohls Corp, Bed Bath & Beyond Inc, Sears Holding Corp, Jo-Ann Stores Holdings Inc, and Office Depot Inc will typically offer coupons and online promotions through those apps - so you shouldn't pay full price for items at those retailers.
Finally, don't forget your loyalty cards. You can load them onto your phone, too, with apps such as FidMe, Key Ring and Card Star. Like the coupons, the bar codes can be scanned off your phone.
GAME TIME APPS
The power of your smartphone will most likely be felt at game time - when you're in the store looking at the merchandise. Say, for example, that you are standing at the display about to grab a $300 flat screen television. Deal or no deal?
You can get the answer almost instantly, by checking apps like PriceGrabber, Amazon PriceCheck and ShopSavvy. They all allow consumers to scan a bar code through their phones to generate a list of prices that item is selling for elsewhere. While the Amazon.com Inc app is going to return prices from the online giant and its collection of sellers, you'll still get a quick take on how good a deal you're really getting.
If the price that pops up on your phone is better than what you find in the store, you've got some options. You could order it from the online seller with a lower price or head to the store that has the product for less. Or you could find a manager and present your findings and see if the store will match the price.
"It's an uncomfortable conversation and it's awkward," Goldstein acknowledges. But if you want to pay that price right then, it's worth a try."
Retailers are well aware of the increasing use of devices by consumers doing research while standing in store aisles - a practice known as "showrooming." Some smaller, local retailers have tried to ban the use of smartphones, fearing price comparisons will lead consumers out of their boutiques and onto the web.
But Goldstein says larger retailers are well aware of the trend and are more likely to match the price because they don't want to lose the sale. Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Target Corp both have price match guarantees, although they limit that to prices offered by their main competitors or locally published ads.
You can also quickly find out what others think of a product you're about to buy. The iPhone app BuyorNot and Amazon's app can give consumers a quick window into what other consumers think. After all, is a big discount on a TV really such a good deal if most of the people who have posted reviews complained that it has a lousy picture?
SHOPPING WITH FRIENDS
Also, don't underestimate the power of personal networking apps like Facebook or Twitter to convey a great deal.
Walter Delph, chief executive officer of Adly, a Los Angeles-based social media advertising company suggests searching hashtags - the # symbol with a keyword - to help you find specific deals, such as #BlackFriday or #iPad. And, he says, consumers should expect that some retailers will challenge shoppers to post a photo with a special hashtag and announce the deals they got on social networks to enter a contest or get a special offer.
Goldstein says so much is going on in the rapidly expanding world of mobile technology that opportunities are going to abound to those who use it. "Retailers are trying to be competitive," he says. "At the end of the day it's really good for consumers."
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance Editing by Linda Stern, Bernard Orr)