“Keep Your Barcode Scanner off My Merchandise”

Photo by dinglemunch used under Creative Commons

Photo by dinglemunch used under Creative Commons

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.




  1. I looked in stores and then went home and ordered online for most of the kit we needed when we had our first baby. However there is one particular store that provides such great advice and service I don't mind paying a couple of bucks more – we needed a new child car seat and they discussed the options made a few recommendations and then came outside and fitted it for us, I will buy more from that store because the advice and service saves me a lot of time and hassle so is worth paying a little more for. Works the same online, if Amazon has a product for a percent or two more than some other retailer I haven't used before, I'll get it from Amazon for the convenience of experience and confidence in delivery dates etc. The trick for all retailers is figuring out the premium their customers will pay for the superior service.

  2. Jake, I recently reviewed four iPhone apps from retailers, including Amazon. I suggest you check out the one from Sam's Club. http://blogs.oracle.com/retail/2008/12/shopping…. Its pretty cool.

    I also discussed the future of m-commerce a bit. http://blogs.oracle.com/retail/2008/11/does_mob…. I think retailers see a lot of potential from smartphones but are still searching for the killer app.

    Also note that Walmart will be selling $99 iPhones by the end of the month. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=wal-mart-to…. That could significantly increase the market for retailer apps.

  3. Nice example. My sense is still that this is blown out of proportion; I wish I could see metrics like how many people actually shop online, how many price compare or use the same etailer, how many people own G1s or iPhones, how many of them price shop using the methods listed?

    These metrics would help understand how much of a deal this really is.

    Beyond that, good service is highly valuable, yet surprisingly lacking. I wonder if the chase for the highest margins possible has sucked the life out of customer service by way of the lowest possible wages.

  4. I saw your posts through OraNA, interesting stuff.

    By choice, I don't shop at Walmart or Sam's Club, but if Costco built an iPhone app, I'd be on that in a hurry.

    That rumor about the Walmart discount iPhone has legs, but I've heard one if not both attributes of the story are wrong. I think definitely the $99 part.

  5. I don't think stores will resort to cell phone jamming, IIRC this is illegal in many countries.

    You raise some interesting points but I don't think anything can be done to stop consumers searching for the best deal. The technologies may change but bargain hunting is a human survival skill 😉

  6. I'm wholly in favor of price shopping, and I really dislike heavy-handed measures like kicking customers out of the store or suggesting no iPhones be used on the premises.

    Bargains rule, but like David, I am completely willing to pay more in certain cases, e.g. for local and natural food products, when service is awesome, to keep a local Mom and Pop store in business.

    I tried to stay measured on this, so it wouldn't seem like I'm an Apple fanboi screaming foul about my precious iPhone.

  7. I'm glad I found your article. I recently got a middle range Nokia which comes with barcode scanning stuff. Until now I just thought it was useless. I don't think you realise just how many handsets have this technology and it's not just in the high end of the market. The reason people aren't using it much is because they don't have a clue yet.

    There is nothing illegal about covering the store in electromagnetic shielding (I don't think that's considered 'jamming', but it's much cheaper and more effective. It's your property, you can do what you like. The only illegal thing is if you tried to do it by emitting radio interference. Which is not only illegal, it's dumb.

    If they did that then you would just get people with offline databases on their hand sets.

  8. You're right. Apparently, I don't have the right picture of how common barcode scanners are on devices. They really are useful and not just for merchandise, e.g. QR codes as mentioned by Matt here:


    I don't know the law, but I think in the US that preventing people from dialing 911 on cell phones feels like it should be illegal. Aside from that one pretty key point, I agree that a business could *legally* block cell signals. It's just bad customer service, and I, for one, would vote with my feet.

    And of course, as you suggest, there are ways around even this method. The desire to save money finds a way, geeky or otherwise.

  9. I heard that all public transport in the UK is shielded in this manner because people were sick of listening to noisy yuppies on their way to and from work.

    I'd find it hard to believe that you could be held responsible for passively blocking cell phone signals. I don't get very good coverage in my house due to the trees and tin roof. I normally have to go outside to talk. No one would expect me to loose my roof just in case there is an emergency.

    My understanding of the laws surrounding jamming of cell phone signals is they have nothing to do with the fact you are preventing someone from making a call, it's the fact that you are broadcasting unauthorised radio transmissions. You'd have to get a permit for it.

    Perhaps the government would allow it in certain circumstances such as research projects and possibly even to prevent cell phone communication from your premises. If the shopping center had a permit to broadcast locally on frequencies required to jam cell phones they could do so without breaching any other laws.

  10. Yeah, definitely a gray area, especially since 911 calls also are tracked by GPS in the US from phone manufactured after a certain date, sometime in 2000, I think in 2000.

    I really don't know the intricacies of the law though. Like I said, a store blocking my cell signal would cause me to shop somewhere else though.

  11. I love that barcode generator, thanks for that! My facebook profile image is now a link to my blog… man I'm a nerd!

  12. Glad you like it. You can thank Matt for introducing it to me. I played with it a little, along with one of the many barcode scanning apps for the iPhone.

    I can see that or something similar as the business card of the future or present for geeks like us 🙂

  13. As a brick and motar store sales associate I would have to argue that the normal stores have to simply price match or come close. I work at Norman camera in grand rapids, Michigan and we not only guarantee lowest price but we match or beat the amazon's and by photos. We just have to to compete and beat the best buys. Yea i'll admit it's annoyin to see the barcode scanner not so much because they want the lowest price but they just need to ask.

    The truth is I am an iPhone guy, I have a barcode app and the fact this is where technology is leading . Maybe sad but true but retail stores need to roll with punches.

    Just added to the thoughts of a retail sales guy, this was all typed on my iPhone.

  14. Interesting to hear your perspective. You're right price-matching is the best way to get and keep business. I suppose the worry is that price-matching will drive revenues too low, but not everyone will do it. Ideally, you build goodwill through a combination of low prices and great customer service which leads to return business.

    Cameras may be one of those areas where you need a really experienced sales force. I know several shutterbugs who *only* shop at small, local stores because of the enthusiast factor.

  15. This was my first time to visit this post and I was amazed of the fact knowing of your point of view. It was great. I do believe and agree that barcode scanners in a mobile phone is pretty useful but poses a threat to retailers. Nice One!

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