Love to Comparison Shop? Try This Little-Known Trick

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  • Many retailer mobile apps now include the ability to use your phone's camera as a barcode scanner. You can scan an item in one store with another store's app to compare prices in a flash.
  • That same feature can help you restock items at home without needing to scroll through search results to find them.
  • Some apps may require extra permissions not everyone is comfortable with. Read through the disclosures before downloading any new apps.

They do so much, why do we still call them "phones"?!

Utterly ubiquitous, barcodes can be found on most of the things we buy. In fact, it's fair to say that retail as we know it wouldn't be possible without the humble barcode. 

It's also at the heart of one of my favorite comparison shopping tricks.

You see, most of the barcodes -- known as Universal Product Codes, or UPCs -- on name-brand products are the same regardless of the retailer. (Much of it starts life at the same factories before being shipped off to their respective stores.) 

So, a bag of potato chips or bottle of shampoo will typically have the same barcode at Target as it does at Walmart. And you can use this fact to easily compare prices from other stores while you shop.

Using your phone as a mobile barcode scanner

Mobile apps have made a lot of impacts on the shopping experience. From the oodles of coupon apps helping you save to the countless retailer apps that turn you into honorary employees. 

Yes, if you're shopping at a major retailer, there's a very good chance it has its very own mobile app. And more and more often, that app now has a virtual barcode scanner. This nifty little tool turns your phone's camera into a functional scanner that can read a barcode and instantly pull up the item's listing in the app.

When you're in that retailer's store, this is a handy way to check prices on items without accurate signage (no more searching for the inevitably-out-of-service scanners at the end of random aisles). 

Perhaps the neatest part of this feature, however, is that you don't need to be in the retailer's store to use their scanner. You can use it from any store where you have internet.

This opens up a whole wide world of comparison shopping. 

In an aisle at Target and want to know if you can get those frozen burritos at a better price at Walmart? Open the Walmart app and scan the barcode. See the price and even add it to your Walmart cart so you remember it later.

It works with other types of stores, too. Want to see what Michaels sells that paint for while you're shopping at Jo-Ann's? Pop open your app and get scanning. As long as both stores carry the product, there's a good chance the barcodes are the same, so you can quickly and easily compare prices.

Folks who are conscious of their finances have a tendency to experience FOMOBP: Fear of Missing Out on a Better Price. By taking a few seconds to compare prices, you can lay that fear to rest (and potentially save money!).

Restock necessities with a quick scan

The barcode scanners also have another handy use: restocking. Did you use up the last of your favorite BBQ sauce at dinner? Pop open your app and scan the barcode to find the exact product so you can add it to your cart. 

Scanning the barcode is much faster than searching for an item, especially for niche products or flavors that aren't lucky enough to be within the first 10 "suggested" -- aka sponsored -- results.

Speed through checkout

Another handy feature some stores are implementing is using those same in-phone scanners to speed up your checkout. For example, if you're a Walmart+ member, you can use your phone to scan items as you shop. Then, checkout in seconds by scanning a barcode on a self-checkout machine and paying with your Walmart digital wallet.

Make sure you read the disclosures

As helpful as retailer's apps can be, make sure you read the disclosures and permissions before you download it. Many stores will demand all kinds of permissions, including your location so they can see where you go when you're in the store.

If you're totally cool with letting the store app tag along every time you use it, well, then you're all set. But if you're privacy conscious, you may need to pick-and-choose which apps -- or at least which permissions -- you allow on your phone.

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