Update: I added quotation marks to the title, thinking that they might help convey the right impression, i.e. I do not support the heavy-handed approach to barcode scanners. I think that’s clear when you get through the post.
From my, “this will get really interesting” file, comes a story from ReadWriteWeb about retail stores and consumers using smart phone barcode scanners to price shop.
More iPhones and Google Android phones in people’s hands means more possibilities for comparison shopping; using the camera as a barcode scanner isn’t new or difficult, and there are plenty of apps that will capture a barcode image and using its UPC, list the prices of other retailers giving you an idea of how good the price you’re seeing IRL really is.
Beyond barcode scanners, I mentioned Amazon’s new iPhone app last week which uses its own Mechanical Turk service as the means for identifying products, and there’s always the slower, but equally as effective method of opening a browser and shopping like you would on your laptop.
So, you don’t even have to attract negative attention from the retailer’s employee by snapping pictures of barcodes.
So far, I’ve not seen much reaction from retailers in the news, except for one story mentioned in RWW about a Target in Detroit. I wouldn’t expect this to become at all common for at least another year.
First off, not that many people have these phones, believe it or not. I know statistics would make this seem more concrete, but I don’t have any. I’m just going based on what I’ve seen in random samplings of life, e.g. at the DMV, in the mall, around town, etc.
Of those who do have smart phones, not everyone has (or cares to use) these apps. Even though I think Amazon’s app is sweet, I haven’t used it yet except for testing, and there’s a good chance I won’t remember to use for months.
So, the threat here is minor, at least for now. That’s not to say it won’t become an issue in not-so-distant future.
Maybe the newly-minted recession will dampen smart phone sales, but I’m expecting a spike in new iPhone users come January. We saw that last year (David for sure, possibly Floyd); Android phones are building momentum as well, with the announcement of the second handset slated for January 29.
More handsets means more people who want to priceshop with their smart phones. If I were a retailer, I’d see this as a threat.
Remember the late 90s when brick-and-mortar retailers were up in arms about losing revenue to the WWW? Savvy consumers have always used the ‘tubes to price match, and this will continue, only now, it becomes a confrontation because the price shopping happens in the retailer’s store.
The RWW post points to a post on AdLab, which says:
That part about “a few years” was probably too optimistic. If you are a store, you might consider investing into a cell phone jammer or printing out this free “No iPhones on Premises” sign.
The author clarifies his words as not advice, but as a characterization of “an inevitable scenario”.
Damn. Sounds a lot like RIAA, circa 2000. There’s even a mention of Pirates of the Amazon, a Firefox add-on which allowed users to stream Amazon content from torrents on the Pirate Bay. Since a quick take-down notice from Amazon legal (natch), the creators have cried foul, claiming the whole thing was an design experiment for a class (natch, again).
Not really a fair comparison to price shopping by cell phone, but the author was referring to doomsday scenarios, i.e. “you go into Blockbuster, scan a box, and the movie is cued up for download on your BitTorrent client”.
Definitely a risk, but not a common one in my mind. It’s debatable that a merchant would even care about this scenario, since it doesn’t affect the store’s inventory or revenue. Sure, widespread piracy costs the industry overall, raising prices for retailers and consumers, but still, I think it’s much more likely that a person scanning a barcode in your store is price shopping and not shoplifting.
And there’s nothing illegal about comparison shopping. I’ve seen people carry the competition’s store circulars around grocery stores to price shop, an old-school method for sure, but not a punishable one.
If retailers begin to crack down by jamming cell signals or banning smart phones, they risk alienating customers, probably ones who don’t even own smart phones.
There are numerous good reasons for allowing cell conversations in your store. Paramount to me is how much time a cell call can save me from making multiple trips. Beyond a simple call, I’ve been known to snap a picture of an item and email it to my wife, just to avoid the annoyance of another trip.
I don’t particularly want to be accosted by store security for this behavior, which would ensure my own personal ban on that merchant.
There are also public health and safety reasons; I once saw video of a gunman randomly shooting people in a grocery store. Those hiding in the aisles were able to summon police on their cell phones.
So, what’s a retailer to do?
What did they do when stores like Amazon opened shop? I’m not entirely sure, but they managed to survive. There’s plenty of consumer money for everyone, and beyond rock-bottom prices, the in-person shopping experience will always have a few advantages on which to rely.
Better service comes to mind immediately. I’ve mentioned in the past that Amazon has great customer service, which they do, but you’d only know that if you return an item. When you shop in person, you have a host of environmental factors that could make you comfortable and happy.
As much as I detest shopping, there are certain products that I prefer to buy in person. Sure I could find the item in person and then use a nefarious price shopping app on my iPhone, but I don’t.
I prefer instant gratification, or more accurately, I prefer a reward for the annoyance of putting up with shopping. If I get really nice and helpful service from the retailer, I’m even more likely to buy in person.
This debate will definitely heat up in the next 12-18 months, as budgets tighten for all parties and more smart phones get into the market. I’m very interested to see how it goes because it represents a turning point for technology and its use IRL.
Your thoughts? Find the comments.