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Technology Untangled: Using smartphones to enhance shopping

Stephen Bour
December 7, 2011
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technology-bourWith the holiday season in full swing, today we will look at some smartphone applications that you may find helpful in your quest for the perfect gifts at the perfect price.

During Black Friday shopping, I became curious when I noticed some people using their phones to scan barcodes on product boxes. They were not scanning for QR codes, a technology I wrote about recently, but they were scanning the actual UPC codes that are typically scanned during checkout. I learned that the app they were using is RedLaser, a shopping assistant tool for your phone.

RedLaser helps you find the best price for any item on your shopping list. It is actually a service owned and run by the online shopping giant eBay. I like to comparison shop, especially when looking for technology items. But when it comes time to buy, I always wonder if the next store down the street has a better deal. RedLaser makes it easy to compare prices and save the runaround. Simply scan the UPC barcode with your smartphone’s camera, and you can instantly learn the price of the identical item at other stores near you. It also provides a list of online dealers that offer the same item, usually at an even lower price, if you can stand to wait and order online. This app uses your phone’s GPS technology to know where you are and tell you exactly how far it is to the next retailer selling the same item. You can be sure that eBay is tracking what items are the most popular scans in order to compile data on buying trends for hot items. A keyword search is also available, letting you search for the best deals even when you are not able to scan an item’s barcode.

Another similar application called ShopSavvy also scans barcodes and points you toward specific deals at stores near you, as well as including product reviews. Additionally, ShopSavvy broadcasts whatever you happen to be scanning to other users of the app. The home screen of this app is constantly updating a scrolling screen of products with the header “scans near you” displaying prices and the distance from you that another shopper is presently scanning. A little creepy, yes, as this program turns on your GPS transmitter by default when it launches. Some people do like the idea of “social shopping” and revealing to their friends every detail about what they buy and where. For them, I recommend looking at the application Foursquare.

Another useful app helps me organize all those frequent shopper loyalty cards that used to fill up my wallet. CardStar lets me take a scan of each barcode from all those cards and save them to my phone. I then simply present the barcode image from my phone to the checkout attendant at each store instead of fumbling for the correct card. The image is not a photo of the barcode from my dirty old cards, but actually a fresh reproduction of the UPC-style barcode that will never become defaced from knocking around in my pocket. Some of the stored shopper cards also provide links to current special deals at that retailer. The checkout scanning of barcodes from my phone display has not always worked, so test out the functionality at your favorite stores before tossing out the actual cards.

Those shopper loyalty cards were an early form of data collection for shopping habits that still feels invasive to many. Now a new potentially nefarious form of shopper tracking via cell phone is making the news this shopping season. Several malls announced that they were to begin tracking movements of all their shoppers by monitoring the signals from their cell phones. The tracking system is FootPath technology and uses antennas in the mall to read the unique ID number that every cell phone emits whenever it is on. The malls felt they were covered legally by providing small signs at the entrances advising that shoppers could turn off their phones if they didn’t consent to the tracking. They stressed that no personal data was being gathered, such as names, phone numbers or actual purchases. The intent was to glean information about what displays shoppers lingered at, what groupings of stores certain shoppers tended to visit and other such holiday shopping patterns. However, the story of these plans struck a nerve about invasion of privacy with me and apparently with many others. It turns out that several days after the announcement, a United States senator protested and caused the malls to abandon their tracking plans. The new protocol will be for shoppers to choose to opt in to the tracking as opposed to needing to opt out if they don’t like the idea of being monitored.

Tracking technology like this will continue to be an important issue, since nearly everyone carries a tracking device with them at all times now. This data is just too valuable to be ignored by marketing and sales types and governments. Whether it is with localized FootPath technology or worldwide GPS, someone may be watching. Be aware that many smartphone apps besides shopping applications have the technical ability, though not necessarily the legal right, to track and record the movement of your phone (and you). I wonder if Santa carries a smartphone that we can track on Christmas Eve.•

Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.

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  1. It's a big fat black mark against the US that they radicalized a lot of these Afghan jihadis in the 80s to fight the soviets and then when they predictably got around to biting the hand that fed them, the US had to invade their homelands, install a bunch of corrupt drug kingpins and kleptocrats, take these guys and torture the hell out of them. Why for example did the US have to sodomize them? Dubya said "they hate us for our freedoms!" Here, try some of that freedom whether you like it or not!!! Now they got even more reasons to hate us-- lets just keep bombing the crap out of their populations, installing more puppet regimes, arming one faction against another, etc etc etc.... the US is becoming a monster. No wonder they hate us. Here's my modest recommendation. How about we follow "Just War" theory in the future. St Augustine had it right. How about we treat these obvious prisoners of war according to the Geneva convention instead of torturing them in sadistic and perverted ways.

  2. As usual, John is "spot-on." The subtle but poignant points he makes are numerous and warrant reflection by mediators and users. Oh but were it so simple.

  3. ACLU. Way to step up against the police state. I see a lot of things from the ACLU I don't like but this one is a gold star in its column.... instead of fighting it the authorities should apologize and back off.

  4. Duncan, It's called the RIGHT OF ASSOCIATION and in the old days people believed it did apply to contracts and employment. Then along came title vii.....that aside, I believe that I am free to work or not work for whomever I like regardless: I don't need a law to tell me I'm free. The day I really am compelled to ignore all the facts of social reality in my associations and I blithely go along with it, I'll be a slave of the state. That day is not today......... in the meantime this proposed bill would probably be violative of 18 usc sec 1981 that prohibits discrimination in contracts... a law violated regularly because who could ever really expect to enforce it along the millions of contracts made in the marketplace daily? Some of these so-called civil rights laws are unenforceable and unjust Utopian Social Engineering. Forcing people to love each other will never work.

  5. I am the father of a sweet little one-year-old named girl, who happens to have Down Syndrome. To anyone who reads this who may be considering the decision to terminate, please know that your child will absolutely light up your life as my daughter has the lives of everyone around her. There is no part of me that condones abortion of a child on the basis that he/she has or might have Down Syndrome. From an intellectual standpoint, however, I question the enforceability of this potential law. As it stands now, the bill reads in relevant part as follows: "A person may not intentionally perform or attempt to perform an abortion . . . if the person knows that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion solely because the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome or a potential diagnosis of Down syndrome." It includes similarly worded provisions abortion on "any other disability" or based on sex selection. It goes so far as to make the medical provider at least potentially liable for wrongful death. First, how does a medical provider "know" that "the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion SOLELY" because of anything? What if the woman says she just doesn't want the baby - not because of the diagnosis - she just doesn't want him/her? Further, how can the doctor be liable for wrongful death, when a Child Wrongful Death claim belongs to the parents? Is there any circumstance in which the mother's comparative fault will not exceed the doctor's alleged comparative fault, thereby barring the claim? If the State wants to discourage women from aborting their children because of a Down Syndrome diagnosis, I'm all for that. Purporting to ban it with an unenforceable law, however, is not the way to effectuate this policy.

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