Retailers such as Target and Amazon are embracing mobile applications to help consumers save money and time with features like digital wallets and augmented reality. When used strategically, apps can streamline in-store trips and online purchases, but shoppers could also find that convenience comes with a risk: impulsive decisions and overspending.

Here’s how to get the most out of retail apps:

Don’t enable notifications. Push notifications — alerts that pop up on your phone — and e-mails tend to “catch people at vulnerable moments,” enticing them to spend money on things they otherwise wouldn’t, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD group, a market research company.

A quick fix: Turn off notifications and opt out of retailers’ e-mails if they are too tempting to resist overspending.

Do make a shopping list. Take inventory and make a list of what you need. Shopping lists can deter impulse purchases by keeping specific merchandise top-of-mind. Most retailer apps make it easy to view and edit lists on your device.

For example, the app for Kohl’s enables shoppers to set a budget, and then automatically deducts the price of each item on the list.

Don’t keep payment information on file. Although storing shipping and billing information speeds up the checkout process, it can also smooth the way for frivolous purchases. Researchers have found that compared with cash, behind-the-scenes payment methods make shoppers feel detached from their money — and more likely to spend.

Instead, enter payment information each time, rather than saving credit card numbers or linking to a PayPal account. The extra step makes the exchange of money feel more real.

Do use your camera. Use the camera feature within apps to read product details and customer reviews. “It allows you to have a greater usage of knowledge of what those products you’re purchasing can do,” Cohen said.

Some apps surface product information when an item’s bar code is scanned with the camera. Beauty retailer Sephora’s app allows shoppers to virtually try on makeup products and colors as they look into their device’s camera.

As well, cameras can summon savings: Snap a picture of your receipt in Walmart’s app, and its Savings Catcher tool will match a competitor’s lower advertised price — even after your purchase. Walmart refunds the difference on an electronic gift card. Target’s app checks for manufacturer coupons and in-store deals on scanned items.

Don’t focus on one retailer. Through exclusive offers and built-in loyalty programs, “individual retailers’ shopping apps intend to lock-in shoppers,” says Jie Zhang, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland. For example, the wallet feature on the J.C. Penney app lets shoppers see and redeem rewards, coupons and gift cards in one place.

But using only one retailer’s app could mean missing out on opportunities to save money.

“Yeah, there might be a 20 percent-off sale, but it could be really easy to go get 35 percent off somewhere else,” Cohen said.

Use a price comparison tool, like ShopSavvy or Google Shopping, to locate the best price across multiple merchants.


Lauren Schwahn is a writer at NerdWallet. E-mail: Twitter: @lauren_schwahn.