Apps that make holiday shopping easier

Retailers might love the time of year between Thanksgiving and New Year, but the holiday shopping season can seem like a chore for everyone else. Thankfully, technology has come to the rescue, with all sorts of apps and sites to help you save money and simplify your shopping. Savvy developers have tackled virtually every aspect of the shopping experience, so you have more ways than ever to ease the pain this year.

Start with the venerable shopping list. The days of writing it on paper are over. Now you can use an app like Google Docs to collaborate on holiday shopping gifts with family members. Better yet, some apps have leveraged the collaborative spirit of Google Docs. List Ease, for example, lets you invite family members to opt into holiday shopping lists. Everyone can add items to it in a browser or on the mobile app, and the up-to-date list is always ready when you arrive at the store.

Capitan takes a somewhat different approach. Location-aware, Capitan can alert your significant other as you approach the store, so he or she can help you shop remotely. This and List Ease are visually optimized for routine grocery shopping, but they adapt well to the unique demand of holiday gift shopping.

But what to buy to begin with? Choosing the right gifts is often the hardest part. You've got some help on this front as well.

Tech review site Techwalla, for example, encourages you to build polls and share them to get buying advice from people you trust. Would an Xbox or Kindle make a better gift for dad? Share the question on Facebook or via email, and Techwalla delivers a bar chart with details about how everyone voted. (Full disclosure: I'm the editor of Techwalla.)

Another approach: Create a family gift registry. That's the idea behind Giftster, where everyone in your family can maintain a personal gift wish list. Each list is visible and shareable among everyone in the group. You can take the lists shopping via the mobile app and mark the status of an item (like "purchased") to advise others, though the list owner can't see those details.

Of course, fewer and fewer gifts are bought in bricks-and-mortar stores. And if you're considering purchasing something via an auction site like eBay, you might want to check out one of the most innovative services I've run across recently. WeGoLook is a sort of crowdsourced inspection service that you can tap into to make sure the item you want to buy meets your expectations.

WeGoLook can be dispatched via mobile app, and one of the service's "Lookers" will physically visit the product's owner and generate a personalized inspection report (complete with photos and video).

Of course, once you've ordered your gifts, you're not finished. Getting deliveries can also be fraught with inconvenience and trouble. UPS offers an app called UPS My Choice that's designed to avoid missing a delivery. You can set "leave at" instructions for the carrier to leave the box by the garage door or in the back of the house, even after the delivery is scheduled.

If you're worried about package deliveries and the precariousness of leaving one outside your house all day, you might want to check out Ring, a doorbell with integrated webcam and microphone. You can talk to the delivery person remotely via its mobile app and be alerted in real time if Ring detects any motion on your porch throughout the day.

Finally, Slice wants to tie all your online purchases together by tracking your deliveries and storing your receipts. You don't have to do anything special to make that work because Slice monitors your email and extracts online order details on its own. Slice also has one other trick up its sleeve: It notifies you about price drops on recent purchases and helps you get a refund when possible.

Photo courtesy Slice