The Future of Retail: Instant Price Match

The obvious future of in-store experience: you find something you like, reach into your pocket for a small device, scan the barcode, and the device tells you whether and where the same product is available for a lower price. Brick-and-mortar stores become little more than showrooms for merchandise bought elsewhere.

This future just got one step closer today with the release of an iPhone app Checkout SmartShop, "a shopping assistant meant to help you fine online and local prices when you’re out and about shopping." For now, you still need to type in the UPS code; they are working on converting the iPhone camera into a barcode scanner.

How much time do you give for this app to hit the market: you go into a Blockbuster, scan a box, and the movie is cued up for download on your BitTorrent client?

In a post last January on online experiences and offline expectations, I wrote, "Retailers gotta act quick if they want to have some control over the converging experiences. In a few years, people will be carrying web browsers in their pockets and won't be needing all this retail innovation. Then they would go to Barnes & Noble to browse books and order the ones they like on Amazon right from the store."

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.

(Update on Dec. 3, 2008): To our guests from the ReadWriteWeb post on the subject, let me clarify that I am not so much recommending jamming or banning iPhones as I am describing an inevitable scenario.

(Update on Dec. 8, 2008):  This thing wouldn't just go away.  Now Slate points its finger at AdLab:  "Some consultants have even suggested that retailers fight back by installing cell phone jammers or banning iPhones from their stores."  Yeah, and I know some writers who apparently cannot read.  Thanks to them, I'm now going down in history as the luddite who told walmarts to jam the cell signal.

Oh, and speaking of Blockbuster and BitTorrent, there's this art experiment about a new Firefox extension that lets you look at movie descriptions at Amazon and then cue them up on BT.


  1. I smell increased price fixing.

  2. Scanning a barcode sounds cool, but is overthinking it, I think. Why not just input the UPC symbol's numbers using any phone that had text data entry. That could use SMS or the web to provide near immediate answers. No special software required.

  3. Very good post Ilya, but I hope you where kidding with your last paragraph :o)

    Consumers rarely care about "the cheapest" product, but care about the product being inside a certain price range.

    Dan Ariely writes on this in his book "Predictably Irrational" saying that you might walk two blocks to purchase a $25 pen for $18 at a different retailer but you wouldn't do the same for a $450 stereo that has been discounted $7 fifteen minutes away.

    Also a study from the beginning of the century showed that consumers don't necessarily purchase from the cheapest outlet, only 20% of consumers on the Internet do.

    I think brand, and trust, are as, or even more important than price. And building a strong brand and implementing advantages in technology is a winning receipt. (Of course we all think that :o)

    But these new “price comparison apps” – intelligent as they are, will only be of advantage in those situations where everything boils down to price, which I think only applies in some price ranges for some product categories.

  4. What the app does (or will do, when it's completed) is it removes the friction of that 15-minute walk needed to get the $7 discount.

    But yes, great points and there are many factors besides the price - time to gratification, convenience, expectation of future value. But I think it is reasonable to expect a major shift in retailing once this functionality goes mainstream.

  5. Interested readers should also check out our free iPhone app called Save Benjis. Save Benjis lets users quickly compare prices and buy products by searching for bar codes, ISBN #s, part names, product numbers and more. Prices are offered from over 1,000 different stores.

    To compete with this trend, retailers need to co-operate with the mobile price comparison engines. If retailers can offer even a small instant coupon via the mobile device at the right time (after the customer has decided to purchase elsewhere) they will keep that customer in the store.

    The future isn't the end of the big box store, it's just the beginning of a more price competitive and flat landscape for those stores.

    Cortis Clark
    -- Author of Save Benjis

  6. I think that you should have pointed out that cell phone jammers are _illegal_ in the U.S.

  7. Neither the cellphone jammers or the iphone signs would have any effect on the purchases I make, if anything those two things will only increase the amount of returns a store has...

  8. Yeah, cellphone jammers sure are illegal. So its probably good that you recommend businesses invest in them.

    Blocking devices like this is a horrible idea. This is a natural market driven evolution of the way people consume. To banish these devices would do a great disservice to us all. Your post is very Orwellian, and a little scary.

  9. That's right, just treat your customers like criminals instead of focusing on providing real value. What a winning business recommendation that is. Get your head out of your ass-hat f*cktard.

  10. This is anti-consumerism. If you treat consumers this way, you will be shunned. In this economy, that's like a Somali swatting away a sandwich.
    Retailers should welcome every opportunity that has the likelihood of increasing business.
    This "cell jammer/no iPhone" nonsense reminds me of those idiots that want to see my receipt when they just saw me pay at the counter. I don't like being treated with distrust when I am "gracing" them with my patronage.

  11. The market is too fixated on selling junk from china as cheaply as possible. And in that case how can it be a shock that consumers will find any way possible to get their items as cheap as they can. I believe most "brick-and-mortar stores" in the future will either be supported from their online ventures or offer specialty goods not available anywhere else.

    (For example I buy my bags from Tom Bihn, they are expensive but made in the USA and of superb quality. They last ten times as long as anything made overseas.)

    Also these savvy shopper programs are the very essence of a free-market economy, by intending to stop them you're trying to exert unfair restrictions on the consumer. This is really no different than saying customers are not allowed to look at multiple Sunday sales ads and pick the cheapest place to go.

    Of course I understand why a retailer would dislike them, but who said life was fair?

    Perhaps this is a good reason to improve customer service, or offer other benefits for customers that they cannot get by shopping at other stores.

  12. typo:

    whether and were -> whether and where

  13. "I think that you should have pointed out that cell phone jammers are _illegal_ in the U.S." - That's right. Jamming devices transmit signals on the same frequency at high power and cancel each other out.


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