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Inflation-Weary Holiday Shoppers Turn to Apps for Savings

By Spencer Soper

 Annie Taylor was about to drop $100 on a new pair of Steve Madden boots at the mall. Then she remembered to scan the barcode using the Price.com app and found the same pair online for about $30 less.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-woman-doing-her-shopping-online-6969797/

“Price finds all these websites I never even heard of and makes it easy to find deals,” said Taylor, a 31-year-old personal assistant who lives in Los Angeles and has been using the app since a friend recommended it. “I got $100 boots for $67, so I was pretty happy.”

Taylor is part of a rapidly growing cohort of US consumers turning to apps and web browser extensions that help them compare prices, find coupons and maximize loyalty rewards from retailers and brands. Most of the tools have been around for years but are suddenly in demand thanks to the steepest inflation in four decades. It’s the kind of shock that compels consumers to break from long-established shopping habits in search of new ways to save, especially during the holiday-shopping season. 

Almost 37 million US shoppers downloaded apps like Upside, Fetch and Price.com in the first 10 months of this year, up 40% from the same period a year ago, according to Data.ai, which monitors downloads.

The mostly small startups are a rare bright spot in a tech industry beset with layoffs and slowing growth. Investors see the trendy tools as the digital equivalent of dollar stores that thrive when shoppers curb spending. Venture capitalists pumped $461 million into price comparison and shopper loyalty tools so far this year, up 62% from a year ago and the most since 2011, according to data compiled by Pitchbook.

Fetch, based in Madison, Wisconsin, and among the most popular of its ilk, was the brainchild of a college student named Wes Schroll, who was frustrated navigating supermarket advertising circulars to stretch his budget. He dropped out in 2013 to develop Fetch, which now has a smartphone app that can process receipts to confirm purchases and earn rewards. That was a game-changer for brands, Schroll said, because it let them know if their promotions were working.

Fetch got a boost last year when Apple Inc. introduced new privacy measures that make it harder for advertisers to track user behavior. Fetch announced $240 million in equity and debt financing in April, an investment led by Hamilton Lane that valued the company at $2.9 billion. Fetch had 14.4 million app installs through mid-November of this year, up 36% from a year ago, according to Sensor Tower.

“Consumers aren’t spending more, so companies have to reward them with a currency they care about to compel them to shift their spending,” Schroll said. Fetch gives users points, which are paid by its retail and brand partners, that shoppers can redeem for things like gift cards at Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and CVS Health Corp.

Upside, a cash-back app, in April announced $165 million in debt and equity funding in a round led by General Catalyst, putting the Washington, DC-based company’s valuation at $1.5 billion. Upside initially focused on gas stations and now works with grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. Shoppers spend about $6 billion a year through the app, said co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Alex Kinnier, who previously worked at Google. Upside had 11.3 million US installs this year through mid-November, more than double from a year earlier, according to Sensor Tower.

Stores are looking to maintain profits while attracting new business, which is compelling them to use digital tools that can track results better than traditional marketing, Kinnier said. Upside looks at a retailer’s staffing levels and inventory to determine what kind of deal it can offer to attract users and still make a profit. Upside only makes money if its retail partners make money, he said.

“Merchants are under a lot of pressure due to inflation and they know that just offering generic discounts leads to cannibalization,” he said. “We help them get incremental business they weren’t getting otherwise.”

Fetch and Upside have grown by focusing on areas not dominated by Amazon, which has backed away from restaurants, remains small in grocery and has yet to figure out a way to disintermediate the gas pump. Price.com, however, is challenging Amazon head-on. Its iOS app includes an Amazon plug-in that shows consumers deals elsewhere while they shop on Amazon. Price also has a website and browser extensions for Chrome and Safari. It plans to release an Android app in January.

Price monitors the cost of more than 1 billion products from 15,000 websites and retailers. It can find shoppers a better price than Amazon in 25% of Amazon searches, according to CEO RJ Jain. The company gets a commission from retailers on the business it sends their way, and the amount of money spent through the platform is up 40% so far this year compared with a year earlier, Jain said.

Dislodging Amazon’s loyal shoppers, including Prime members who pay for shipping discounts and other perks, is no easy task because the company’s online marketplace has a reputation for low prices—even though that’s not always the case. But the proliferation of advertising on Amazon and Google search makes it hard for shoppers to simply find the best deal, which should help Price, said Larry O’Connor, a Price investor.

“Amazon has a lot of great deals, but it also pushes a lot of things that aren’t great deals,” he said. “Price automatically lets you know when there are better deals out there.”

Mike Vainisi, who works in video production in Los Angeles, tried Price this fall after hearing about it at a social event. He wanted a Sonos speaker and would ordinarily shop for such things on Amazon. He searched for the item he wanted on Price and was surprised to find it at Best Buy for $300, about $100 less than most other offers. Vainisi purchased the speaker online and picked it up from a nearby store.

“Shopping on Amazon and Google is tough because there are so many paid advertisements,” he said. “Price has changed my shopping habits, especially for more expensive items.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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