Headed out to do some shopping and looking for a few good deals? Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and their accompanying mobile applications, the ability to access geo-targeted coupons from nearby merchants on your handheld device is easier than ever.
Or is it?
In theory, you should be able to go into any store, launch an app and find a coupon for that business which could then be presented to the cashier. We have the technology - it is possible. In practice, however, this sort of mobilized "discount shopping" experience is still quite a ways off.
In Apple's ecosystem alone, dozens of applications are returned when you search iTunes for "mobile coupons." But after some experimentation with a handful of the top names (and a couple of newcomers), the experience was less than desirable.
In my tests of several of these mobile coupon apps, I used an iPhone, but many of the apps mentioned below are multi-platform, supported on devices like Android and Blackberry, too.
Problem #1: Which App Has a Coupon for This Store?
For starters, despite living in a relatively large metro area (Tampa Bay, Florida - which, for the geographically unaware, is the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the Southeast U.S.), there were relatively few coupons available no matter which service was used. That's surprising, given the fact that nearly every major national chain is represented here. But in one app, there would be coupons for a national chain like "GNC" and in another app there would be coupons for the national chain "Domino's Pizza" and in yet another app there would be coupons for a Tampa Bay-based chain of restaurants, but despite my searches, I couldn't find a single app that housed all the offers in one comprehensive listing. Why is that?
And had I actually wanted to use a particular coupon, it would have taken several minutes of launching multiple apps and searching for that business in order to locate which app offered it. That's hardly convenient when you're on the move and in a hurry.
Problem #2: How Do I Use This Coupon?
Yowza!!, you're given a coupon code (similar to what you would use on a website at checkout) which you're supposed to give to a cashier - a cashier who, according to the app's included FAQ, may have no idea what to do with it, requiring you to ask a manager for help. In mobiQpons, you're presented with what looks like an actual coupon that could have appeared in a local paper and you can tap it to make it appear full-screen. In Coupon Sherpa, however, most coupons appeared via the application's in-app Web browser which directs you to a page on that company's website where the coupon resides. Some of these have barcodes, some do not and in at least one case, the coupon didn't load - only the mobile website did. Oops!Then let's say I actually found a coupon worth using. The process for doing so is entirely different, given the app being used. For example, in
Problem #3: Geo-Targeting Needs Improvement
Then there is the geo-targeting functionality, which is, in many cases, limited to a display of nearby offers, only available once the app is launched. Where are the push notifications, I ask? In mobiQpons, I could turn on push "reminders" about offers from favorite stores, but in Cellfire and Coupon Sherpa, there weren't push notifications even available. Yowza!! asked if it could send me push notifications (as did Qponomics), but in Yowza!! only your pre-configured favorite stores could send you push notifications, given permission. The same was true for Shopary, a "shopping diary" type app. Neither were smart enough to know that you were at "Finish Line," for example, and send you messages at that time - they would only ping you when new offers became available. Qponomics actually had so few deals, I couldn't even test it and although a newcomer called Shooger offered real-time, daily or weekly notifications, it was unclear how these worked given the app's lack of an included "how to" section.
Granted, the geo-targeting issues have partially to do with the lack of precision of the GPS systems in today's smartphones. If you're at a mall, for example, it doesn't know which store you're in as the shops are all so close together. Hopefully, now that the next-generation of GPS satellites have been launched into orbit with their exact targeting capabilities, the ability for apps to know precisely where you are will become possible sometime in the future.
Problem #4: You Still Need a Printer
mentioned earlier, I've been using GroceryIQ for building shopping lists and there is relatively decent mobile coupon integration built into the app, courtesy of coupons.com (which, for what it's worth, has its own independent application if coupons are all you're after). However, despite the fact that the coupons.com offers are available right there in both these mobile applications, you have to print them out in order to use them at checkout.Finally, there was the challenge of using mobile grocery coupons. As
Correction: You may have to print coupons in order to use them at checkout. GroceryIQ has a "Savings Card" option which will save coupons to a store loyalty card at supported stores. In my metro area, the stores I frequent (Publix, Sweetbay, Whole Foods and Fresh Market) were not supported so I was unaware of the option. GroceryIQ currently supports Safeway, VONS, Dominick's, Genuardi's, Randalls, Tom Thumb, Pavilions, and Carrs. The Coupons.com app offers a similar feature.
Perhaps the problem here is that supermarkets just aren't ready to handle mobile coupons at checkout. Plus, imagine the horror of being behind someone in line as they fiddled with a mobile app to pull up coupon after coupon so the cashier could scan barcodes. Clearly, this technology still needs improvement. I'd imagine that, in a perfect world, you could present the cashier with a single barcode to scan that would somehow translate all your offers into discounts readable by their in-house systems. But that's not something an independent developer could create for smartphones, the grocery chain would have to be involved itself before that technology became possible.
For Now, Barcode Scanning is Better for Saving
Although all the apps tested, as noted, were on the iPhone and this certainly wasn't a comprehensive lineup (I'm expecting the emails from PR staff as soon as I hit publish), the experience was disheartening enough to make me give up - for now at least - on using mobile coupons at all. Frankly, they're more trouble than they're worth at this point in time.
Far more useful for everyday savings are the barcode scanning apps like RedLaser and ShopSavvy, which let you know if you're getting a good deal on what you're buying. Although they won't give you a coupon for the item scanned, you'll at least know if there's a better price available down the street or online.