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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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