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Even James Bond might be impressed by some of the smart and sneaky phone applications to help you shop this holiday season. The free, downloadable apps let you deploy a mobile-phone camera to capture coded information about a product, then make the smartest purchase decision.
Point a smartphone camera at one of those artsy Quick Response symbols now decorating lots of packages and, with the right app, the screen is soon seized for an extended explanation or commercial about the item. It sure beats asking a seasonal salesperson.
Things get sneakier if the shopping app captures a product bar code. The software pulls up a list of other retailers and their prices for the same item. Sometimes it lets you make an instant purchase.
Maybe the most nefarious of the apps is Flow, launched this season by Amazon.com for the iPhone. Dazzlingly fast and accurate, it uses a multipoint recognition system to ID a product from the bar code or even -- get this -- the cover art of an object you hold up to the lens. It works especially well with books, video games, DVDs and CDs.
Maybe a whole second later, the phone screen confirms the item, offers access to user reviews and serves up a price quote from Amazon. Tap one more button to buy.
One of the original product scanning apps, RedLaser offers instant comparison-shopping from multiple sources aligned with eBay, and from Google, TheFind, Half.com, Milo.com and Best Buy. Available for iPhone and Android mobiles, RedLaser scans bar codes and QRs. The new RedLaser 3.0 edition adds features such as "buy mobile and pickup local," with Toys 'R' Us as its first partner; "in-app" checkout using PayPal; categorized shopping lists you can share via Facebook, SMS and e-mail; plus an archived listing of all the books, CDs and DVDs you already own.
Rival apps with similar names, ShopSavvy and Savvy.com, have their selling (or is that buying?) points.
ShopSavvy lets you find items by keywords, as well as by bar codes. It searches for products in Europe and the United States.
In test mode at the Apple app store and coming soon to the Android marketplace, Savvy.com's most intriguing feature is the ability to track pricing on items you've already bought from a participating retailer. If the price drops, you can get a refund.
As the name suggests, the Apple Store app is for all things Apple and works strictly on the iPhone. The really wild feature comes into play when you enter an Apple retail store. Pick up an item, scan its bar code with the phone camera, then tap the "buy" button. Your purchase is now complete. Really.
roots to sop up scalp oil and add volume. Try Batiste Dry Shampoo ($8).
5 Get cheeky: There's nothing like flushed cheeks to brighten up your entire face. "If you only have time for one change, choose your cheeks," says Emily Koski of Emily J Hair & Makeup (612-590-8174). "Use a cream blush for a more dramatic look, and blend well into the apples of your cheeks." Koski likes Nars the Multiple in Orgasm ($39), which can also be used on eyes and lips.
6 Take a smoky eye shortcut: They're glamorous to be sure, but smoky eyes present a major time and technique barrier. Swenson prefers a modified smoky eye: Simply smudge a dark charcoal shadow into top and bottom lash lines using your finger or a brush. That's it! Try Laura Mercier Sequin Eye Color in Black Ice, $22.
7 Get balmed: Moisturizing, smoothing and portable, balms are the ultimate multi-tasker. Tame frizzy, flyaway hair; groom unruly brows; add gleam to eyelids, shins and cheekbones, and soften lips and cuticles. The possibilities are endless, and can be executed while slipping on your party shoes. For best results, choose a balm containing natural waxes and plant oils, such as Josie Maran Argan Oil Moisturizing Stick ($22).
8 Don't do your hair: For festive tresses without the intricate updo or complicated curls, just add one of the season's vintage-inspired hair accessories. "A slim jeweled headband will instantly dress up your look," says Koski. "If you don't own one, rifle through your grandmother's jewelry box for costume jewelry that could be pinned or tucked into a hair band."
9 Nail it in one step: Manicure? In your dreams! Local manicurist Rhonda Hansford's one-trick pony: Apply Smith's Rosebud Salve ($6) to your lips, then massage any remaining product into clean nails and cuticles for a just-buffed shine. If you still want polish, paint on one coat of the season's blingy gold or silver shades -- the only accessory you'll need for that LBD.
10 Hire a pro: If you have a little more time to spare, have the pros come to you. Jon Charles Salon (612-724-2444 or 952-767-9977) will pull up in an Airstream and give you and your besties blow-outs ($75 hourly/five-person minimum). Koski's team will do your hair and makeup while you lounge in a robe (from $60; group discounts available). When a cocktail dress calls for a bit of color, Glow (952-500-0458) mobile airbrush tanning can customize a sunless tan or help you host a "Tantini" party ($45 and up).
Big-box hardware stores continue to blur the lines of retail. You can now buy living room furniture, usually the flat-packed, ready-to-assemble kind, at places such as Fleet Farm. But this week, the Farm is featuring a look-alike to Ikea's iconic Tullsta chair ($99) for $80 on sale. The Hartford barrel chair with pillow is regularly $100. The two chairs are virtually identical in size, but Fleet Farm's version weighs nine pounds more.
When Fleet Farm has any of its furniture pieces on sale, the prices can rarely be beat, if the style suits you.Restaurants offer gift card discounts
More than 50 independent (Heidi's, Kincaid's, Punch Pizza) and chain restaurants (Applebee's, Boston Market, Chipotle) offer discounts of 10 to 40 percent on their gift cards until Dec. 24. The cards make a nice gift and they're a good way to save on future meals for your family. Check the list at my blog at www.startribune.com/dealspotter.Keep the holidays going and going and going
Stock up on batteries for the holidays now to avoid paying more at the last minute or disappointing the kids. Consumer Reports found that the Energizer Advanced lithium battery was a good value for cameras. The cost is $5.40 per pair, but its longer life span makes it cheaper per picture than some alkalines. Since most alkaline brands share the same life span, try less expensive store brands such as Ikea or Kirkland Signature at Costco. Only the Walgreens Supercell alkaline was judged worse than average.
The Dollar Stretcher website (www.stretcher.com) recommends buying a battery tester (about $10 at Radio Shack). When the remote isn't working, check each battery. Typically, only one battery is dead. You'll save money by replacing only one battery instead of all of them. Rechargeables are a good option when replacing them often in toys, for example. Consumer Reports recommends high-capacity recharging models at 2,350 milliamp hours or less.
Poll: If the state's $1.9B surplus were "fun money," how would you spend it?