Even before the recession hit, consumers had many tools to aid them in comparison shopping. While in the pre-Internet days, shoppers had to go from shop to shop to compare prices, make calls, or check out the circulars in the Sunday paper to get prices. Then the Internet arrived and brought about reliable search engine comparison tools along with Web sites specifically designed to locate the best prices. However today, moving beyond the desktop PC, the biggest boon to price-conscious shoppers is the mobile phone camera.
The camera on your phone can do something you may not have expected: act as an instant barcode scanner.
Though barcodes are now a part of everyday life, they were slow in coming. The idea of developing a technology to ease the checkout process dates back to the late 1940s. The system we know today as the Universal Product Code was developed in the 1960s and introduced to retail in the 1970s. The funny thing is that early products didn’t have a barcode yet, so stickers had to be applied to the products when the system was being tested at Kroger stores.
By the 1980s barcodes were on practically all products sold in grocery and department stores, but there were some minor setbacks too. In the early days, the system was unreliable. But now barcodes make it easier to checkout, make sure that accurate prices are presented, and of course help manage inventory.
For the consumer, the barcode has made it easier to compare prices. This is something that the inventors, and likely most retailers, never considered. There are several barcode apps on the market that allow you to scan an item with your camera phone and get a price, a product description, and even prices from the Internet and other stores in the area. And while there are some bugs to be worked out, the fact is that big names are looking at comparing prices. Motorola recently invested an undisclosed sum in Scanbury, a developer of mobile barcode products and services.
Microsoft and Google are also in the game. The former has its own barcode service, Microsoft Tag, while Google uses barcodes for various promotions. Given that Google has shopping as part of its search, it isn’t hard to see how barcode scanning could be made a part of Google’s Android operating system for mobile handsets. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft takes a cue and integrates this technology in Bing with the upcoming Windows Mobile/Phone 7.
What this means for small business retailers is that they’re going to have to be ready for pricing wars. Fortunately by using this very technology, it should be easier to find out what a competitor is charging and price accordingly. It could also mean greater fluctuations in price, as some retailers might be able to determine from a quick scan whether a product has gone on or off sale at a rival store and whether it is even in stock. While no one expects products to suddenly jump in price — such as those must-have toys prior to the holiday season — price comparing could actually result in retailers suddenly having very similar prices.