Brick and mortar stores' worst nightmare: a barcode scanner in every pocket

How mobile apps are closing the gap between retail stores and the web

Smartphone apps have an uncanny tendency of rendering other, simpler products obsolete; one can't help but notice that everything from watches to alarm clocks to standalone satnav systems seem to be on the way out. But could smartphones, or more specifically smartphone apps, actually accelerate the decline of brick and mortar retail stores?

Barcode scanner apps aren't especially new to smartphones. Android and iPhone platforms have had them since at least 2008, and Windows Mobile phones were boasting early incarnations of camera-based scanning apps for years before that. But this holiday seasons will be the one where they become nearly ubiquitous: eBay has just added scanning functionality to its iPhone app; Amazon has released another app called "Price Check" that's focused almost entirely on barcode scanning and photo recognition; apps like RedLaser and Save Benjis are seeing a surge in downloads in the run-up to Black Friday.

Big in Japan, the company behind free iPhone and Android scanning app ShopSavvy, has high hopes for this week:

In a typical month, ShopSavvy users conduct between 30 and 50 million scans; this month, we expect that to be closer to 120 million scans, with more than half of those coming over Black Friday weekend

On top of that, their regular monthly scan rate is as much as three times higher than it was the year before. Barcode scanning, it seems, has finally arrived.

What this means for popular shopping habits is yet to be seen, but the manner in which these barcode scanners are intended to be used zeroes in on an increasingly outdated mode of shopping: going to a store not because it has what you want at the lowest price, but out of habit, loyalty or inductive reasoning. ("The price has been low before, so I'll go back to store x!")  Barcode scanners, which instantly pull down price comparisons from the web, turn the retail shopping experience into something like web shopping, where price is king, brand means nothing, and purchasing plans are changed, changed back, and changed again in the space of a few seconds.

The threat to traditional stores is twofold. Some scanners, like Amazon's, gently push users toward using the internet to buy goods. The website's goal in releasing its pair of scanning apps seems apparent: to stall people at the last moments before a purchase. A customer in Walmart who is about to buy a DVD may scan its barcode, see that it's available for four dollars less online, and put the DVD back on the shelf. Perhaps he'll even make his online purchase from Amazon right there in the store, from his phone.

The second horn of the retailers' dilemma is instant competition from other b&m retailers. Many of these apps, like ShopSavvy, pull prices from local stores as well, providing an experience not unlike that faced by customers who buy airline tickets online. Instead of driving from store to store, or calling each airline, within seconds a consumer can have a list of available purchase options, ordered from lowest to highest.

Scanning apps aren't likely to be transformative this holiday season, and retailers--online or off--probably won't deign to remark much on their influence. But it's only been about a year since barcode scanning technology has been mature enough to recommend for general consumption, and user numbers, relative to the smartphone user base and the broader population, are still slight.

Given a few years, and tens of millions more downloads, perhaps businesses will start to take a bit more notice.

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