Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mobile Barcodes in retail

Items for sale in retail stores tend to have 1-d barcodes on their packages. 1-d codes are those closely-packed vertical lines of varying thickness, so called because a scanner need only read horizontally. Traditionally they have been placed their for use at checkout, or for use by clerks managing inventory.

Some new phones and new applications have come along that extend the scanning experience to consumers. Armed with the right phone and the right software, consumers can use the codes in ways never intended by the manufacturer or the retailer.

The most obvious purpose is for a consumer to price compare an item on a shelf: scan the code on the shelf and find all the other physical and electronic merchants who might sell the item for less.

Services like this have been around for years but have been limited by the inconvenience of entering the barcode manually into a webform on your phone. It's an exciting demonstration of the way mobile barcode scanning can unlock new and unpredicted experiences.

So what's the downside here? First, at least in the US, 1-d barcodes can be read only by the most advanced phones, so the comparison shopping experience is available only to a small portion of consumers. Second, it creates a purpose for a barcode that never previously existed, and is unintended from the product manufacturer and the retailer's point of view. The article points out the awkward stance taken by several retailers.

I don't think it is appropriate or possible or healthy to prevent consumers from comparison shopping. But I also think retailers and manufacturers can and should claim a voice for themselves through this channel. IMHO, the way for them to accomplish this goal is to negotiate with the people making and distributing the scanning software.

Scanning software has two general functions: Turn the code symbol into a number, and do something with that number. retailers/manufacturers should interact with the scanning software guys to influence the second part of this equation. The influence could vary between providing the complete experience, to ensuring high placement in search results.

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