Amazon.com's iPhone app redefines "comparison shopping" to a metaphor for "I'll buy it somewhere else." (And by "Somewhere else", of course, I meant Amazon.)

Bar code scanning.

As though our pudgy fingers were not able to peck out a search query in the Amazon Mobile iPhone app fast enough, the dark geniuses in Seattle have devised an even faster way for meatspace searching to be converted to Amazon-only-facilitated online shopping.

Update your iPhone Amazon.com app to version 1.2.8 and in the Search tab, you will now find an option to initiate a bar code scan.  The interface even gives you a first-person-shooter style targeting reticule to help you keep the image in the perfect zone for a speedy recognition.

I've tried a lot of the QR Code scanner apps that use the iPhone camera in the past and nothing matches up to this app's ease of use.  You don't even need to snap an actual picture – the app just grabs the barcode and runs the recognition out of the live image.

Comparison shopping?  Really?  Really?!

Though my main interest in this lies on the side of indie booksellers – who seem to take a hit no matter which side of the street Amazon is working – this kind of idiot-proof online-purchase-driving "comparison shopping" will affect any retailer who carries the same goods that Amazon does.

"Comparison shopping" used to mean the kind of pre-purchase research and thought processes that would enable a customer to find the best price, even if it meant multiple trips around town.  When you finally found the best price, you'd buy it.  It used to take some effort to comparison shop.

The kind of "comparison shopping" that the Amazon Mobile app enables is basically this:

  1. I'm in a bookstore, looking at a product in which I am interested, say, a book.
  2. I look at the price on the back of the book.  Perhaps the list price is $16.95
  3. I whip out my iPhone, boot up the app, and within 15 seconds, I know that Amazon.com will sell it to me for the discounted price of $11.53 (or, as the results page helpfully informs me, 32% off).
  4. Now my decision tree is this – do I let my handy device buy the book for me to be shipped in a couple of days and save $5.42? Or do I take the book that is already in my hands and pay for it in the local shop?

Is it about more than just price?

Now, I'm not knocking the idea of saving $5.42 for that sample book – in these days, that's not insignificant.  Although there are other factors that might affect my decision.

  • Am I a member of Amazon Prime and receive free shipping no matter what?  Or do I need to factor in a shipping charge? 
  • How much is it worth to me to have the book right now?
  • Since I try to be a relatively ethical member of society, I might also factor in the question of whether a kindly bookseller is standing nearby, having helped me find the book, or perhaps even recommended it to me.
  • Completely aside from the possible question of "Did I just insult the kindly bookseller by price-checking on Amazon in front of him?", there is also the question of "Do I live in the town where this bookstore is located?" and "Will my purchase of this book locally also contribute in some small way to keeping this bookstore in business in my town?"

There's even a chance that while I was completing my bar-code-scan enabled search, the store's owner or manager was making their way toward me to ask me to not do that in their store.  As one commenter on Gotta Be Mobile's post about the Amazon Mobile update put it

"No business should be allowed to ban someone comprising shopping. The more information that the consumer has the better off the consumer is and it will force companies to be better."

I think that appealing to Basic Economic Theory 101 will only take us so far.  Those kind of bald statements work great in the classroom, but out here in the real, modern world, we need to think a little deeper.

I know that some of the people who are reading this post right now are probably thinking that my quibbles about the ethics of shopping locally are completely utopian when compared with a good old Cost Benefit Analysis.

We can talk more about the multiple sides to that story later.  

But for now, can we simply agree that, while you might end up saving some money by using this app, it's just not cool to take advantage of the expertise and efforts of local retailers to help you locate or discover a book, or any other product, and then buy it from an online retailer while you're still standing right there in their store?

Can we agree that, at a minimum, that kind of behavior is insulting & unbecoming a modern citizen of our time & place?  Can we get a ruling on that, Miss Manners?

Who really benefits from this kind of comparison shopping?

For people who live in remote areas, or people for whom their selection is limited, online shopping is a huge win.  It gives every customer the option to choose exactly the product they want.  And that's not the side of the Internet Economy I'm talking about.

A bar code scanner in a mobile app doesn't necessarily serve those groups of isolated and/or underserved customers.  A bar code scanner presumes that you have the product there in front of you.   So if you are not isolated and underserved by retail options, then the question really comes down to one of price.

And because the Amazon app gives you only one alternate price and source to the product you just scanned – their own – it's not really the same kind of mobile-enabled comparison shopping that you get with an app like Red Laser.  

You can tell that Red Laser is interested in more than just serving you up to Amazon because the first question you're asked when you run it is if you'd like to be directed to local stores who have the scanned products for sale.

The Amazon Mobile app doesn't really enable the freely moving, frictionless kind of economy that economists aspire to.  It's not what you might call "fair" comparison shopping.  It doesn't create or sustain a level playing field.  It enables a greased slide downhill toward Amazon's checkout page. 

 

[image & first tip via TUAW]