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Ghost of Christmas Future?

Friday, December 18, 2009

It’s no secret that I think apps are the future, and we can see it emerging now. However, I’m not a big mall shopper, so I haven’t experimented with shopping apps for my iPhone except for a grocery list, which I quickly became unable to live without. My students are on the same wave length. In fact, last night one tried to convince the class that we wanted to listen to sports events on our smart phones! No sale there, Laura! but I was thinking about apps when I saw this article in the NYT today. The idea of mobile phones as an essential tool for shopping intrigues me, although it may strike fear into the hearts of some retailers.

The video is fascinating, so I decided to experiment. I downloaded the free ShopSavvy app with no trouble. However, it didn’t work. Ok, go read some more. I found out that it only works on the iPhone 3Gs. Reason: older iPhones lack the autofocus function that makes a bar code readable.

Is there a bar code scanner app for the 3G? Yes, I found RedLaser and it looked pretty good. I downloaded that, although along the way I had to update my iPhone software; that took longer than the two app downloads together. After that, $1.99 and a few seconds later, I had a bar code scanner.

First thing I tried was a Diet Coke can. The UPC is on the side, so the can kept rolling around and getting glare from the metal; never did get it to work. However, I pointed the scanner at the bar code on the RedLaser site, and moments later I had lift off! The code is for a snuggles blanket and it sells for as little as $11.99 online and shows $14.99 at both Best Buy and Sears, which are near me. And I didn’t need to try to integrate it with the ShopSavvy app; it gave me results from Google search and from the Find. Fascinating!

Thank goodness I’ve finished my Christmas shopping, but I decided to check how well I did on one item. The hard drive I bought sells for as little as $109.95 online and as much as $179.99 at retail outlets and some online merchants. So I did just fine—thanks to a sale and loyal customer discount at Staples! Are you surprised at the price range? I was! Of course, customers will think about shipping when they see the online prices. Does this kind of shopping confirm the wisdom of all the free shipping offers we are seeing this holiday season?

This is all pretty new, and not that many shoppers are yet using it. What about next Christmas? Fearless Roberts prediction; this is going to catch on fast. Corollary to that; if I can do it, anyone else with a smart phone can!

Retailers, both online and off, seem to have two choices. They can offer to meet the lowest price; notice that Wal-Mart’s price matching offer (current TV ad appears to simply restate the policy on their site) excludes online prices. That obviously can cut into a retailer’s margin—and what if it’s counter to the merchandising strategy?

I would describe the second option as, “you can’t beat them, so join them.” I’ve previously described apps intended to make it easier to shop at certain stores or buy certain brands. That is going to make sense, at least for first movers for awhile. Like everything else, however, there will be a limit to how many apps customers want.

Is this within range of small local retailers? I searched again and found this site; the costs are consistent with what I’ve seen before and on the low end are not excessive.

Should retailers—large and small—be thinking right now about next Christmas and how they can take advantage of the trend to mobile-assisted shopping?
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