Jim Silver points his mobile phone at the barcode on a Lego Galaxy Squad play set on the shelf of a Toys "R" Us. The store is selling it for $109. Competing prices from five other retailers appear on his screen, including Amazon.com, which offers the same item for $80.
"I just saved you $30," said Silver, editor of Time to Play Magazine, during a visit to a store in Los Angeles last month. Another click allows users to buy it from the online retailer, although, Silver says, "sometimes the store will match the price if you show it to them."
Don't be surprised if much of the barcode-scanning performed at stores this holiday season isn't just by cashiers, but consumers armed with price-comparison apps. Whether the purchases are made online or off-line, shoppers are increasingly gaining an upper hand thanks to mobile technology.
The "Shop for Kids" app, which Silver's employer aNb Media released for free in September, joins a crowded field of mobile software geared toward helping shoppers find the best deals while at the store. Some of the popular price-comparison apps with a barcode-reader include EBay's RedLaser, Amazon's Price Check and PriceGrabber.
The stakes are huge for retailers: U.S. e-commerce sales during the holidays are expected to rise 15 percent to $61.8 billion, according to EMarketer, and mobile devices are playing an ever-growing role. Mobile commerce is expected to account for 16 percent of e-commerce sales this year.
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Mobile devices can drive sales two ways -- by allowing users to buy items on their smartphones and tablets, and as a shopping research tool that could lead to in-store purchases, according to EMarketer.
That's not lost on some retailers, which have created their own shopping apps and have beefed up Wi-Fi access in their stores to encourage online shopping, according to Clark Fredricksen, a spokesman for EMarketer. Many are also offering free shipping for online orders.
"The alternative for a retailer is to not participate," he said. "Then they're left out of the conversation."
ANb's app, which focuses on toys, includes product reviews by its staff of experts. The app takes advantage of how toys are often purchased, with a trip to a store for one item quickly turning into kids screaming for something else that caught their eye, Silver says. And the parent has no information about it.
"The hot item is not necessarily the right item, if it's not right for your kid," he says.
Silver walks over to Mattel's new Barbie Dream House, a three-story affair with five rooms, a working elevator and more than 50 pieces. He points his phone at the item's barcode and up pops his company's online review that calls the product difficult to assemble.
"We said it was more like the Amityville Horror house," he says.
Mattel, which has heard from parents that setting up the Dream House is challenging, has produced two online videos to assist them, according to Michelle Chidoni, a spokeswoman.
Still, for many consumers, price will remain the biggest determining factor in whether or not to buy.
With Amazon.com and other e-tailers now collecting sales taxes on purchases, their pricing advantage has diminished relative to some brick-and-mortar stores, according to Siva Kumar, chief executive officer of TheFind, which has a shopping app that searches more than 500,000 e-commerce sites.
"The consumer wants to know, 'What's the lowest I can get?'" he said. "Sometimes it's a $30 difference. Sometimes it's nothing."