Here’s how to make your last-minute shopping quick and easy.
PICKING OUT A GIFT
Maybe the hardest part of last-minute shopping is thinking of a good present. You could ask your social network for suggestions, but that tips off everyone that you’ve been lollygagging and may tip them off to their gifts, too.
Instead, try doing the same thing anonymously through Aardvark, a query service that sends questions to people who have designated themselves as experts in their fields. Ask for a gift for a cyclist, for example, and the question will be sent to gift experts and cycling experts. It pings a few people at a time until you get a suitable answer, so you’re not bugging a lot of people. For best results, ask a focused question, like “what is a good gift for a 60-year-old opera lover?”
You can also anonymously see what people suggest on Twitter. I like to use Twitter Search. Enter “Christmas gift list” to see lists people have compiled for golfers, children and others. Be advised that there is also a lot of promotional spam out there. A narrower search, like “tennis Christmas gift” gets better suggestions. A site called the Christmas It List culls comments from 50 sites to determine the 25 hottest products. Or check its Twitter site to see day-by-day changes, which show a larger selection.
FINDING THE RIGHT DEAL
With some ideas, you can hit the Web, but rather than laboriously check each product at several stores, let Web browser add-ons search out deals and discounts for you.
I like to use the Firefox browser with the add-on Invisible Hand. It works in the background on Firefox and Google Chrome (Internet Explorer is coming, the company says), automatically checking prices at about 50 online stores as you shop. A subtle alert in the toolbar tells you if it finds a lower price than the one you have found yourself.
Another tool for smoothing online shopping is Billeo, which works on Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers when using the search engines Yahoo, Google and Bing. Billeo shows an icon next to a search entry if Visa, American Express, Bank of America or Chase offers a reward for the purchase, or if the retailer is offering a discount. Billeo said it tracked offers from 720 retailers, like Target, Macy’s, Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart.
Billeo also streamlines one big online shopping headache, filling out forms at checkout. Fill out Billeo’s form once and it should auto-fill most checkouts you’ll encounter, as long as the forms are fairly standard and are not Flash-based.
Need something quick — and cheap — for the office Secret Santa exchange? I like the Web site CouponMap.com. It shows available coupons in your immediate area (the results are shown on a map), so you can print the coupon, run right out and get a discount gift. I’ve looked at dozens of coupon sites, and find them to be pretty inaccurate, but CouponMap did well. It even found an extra hidden discount on a gift certificate to a local crab house, reducing the price of a $25 gift certificate to $7.50.
The Web site RetailMeNot.com also maps coupon deals for nearby businesses, a total of 40,000 stores nationally, it says. The site then asks users to rate the effectiveness of the various offers, helping to weed out expired deals.
COMPARING ON THE GO
If inspiration has not struck and you find yourself milling around the mall, there are still some excellent comparison-shopping tools to use on the spot.
Part of its brilliance is you don’t have to take a picture of the bar code, you just frame the code with the camera and it quickly and automatically scans and returns results. When you know the Web price, you can decide if it’s worth paying extra to have the gift right away — think of it as an optional late fee.
In the past I’ve relied mostly on the ShopSavvy app for Android, which is now also available for the iPhone. Although the bar code reader can be a bit finicky, it returns not only online pricing but also prices at nearby stores. It gives you an option of calling the store or getting directions.
Bar code scanners do have a weakness. They work best for products that are distributed nationally to a variety of stores, items like books, CDs, DVDs and electronics. They don’t work as well on items exclusive to a single chain — those products may have a proprietary code. They tend not to work well on items like clothing and groceries, either.
Some of these weaknesses may be overcome by Google Goggles for Android phones. Using the camera, it conducts a visual search. It can scan writing as well as bar codes, so it can search results based on the writing on a toy’s box, a logo or a label. Sometimes that returns a result when a bar code doesn’t work. But it’s a last-ditch effort: the app is still a work in progress, and doesn’t always produce a useful result.
It may not be in the best holiday spirit, but when you’re pressed for time in the gift-giving season, you really can phone it in.
from N.Y. Times