How SmartPhones Level the Playing Field for Shoppers

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Comparison shopping has never been easier. Forget about store circulars, let alone physically going to multiple stores to scope prices. With a smartphone and a price-comparison app, scouring the competition is as easy as entering a single store and punching in an item’s model number or scanning the bar code, then waiting a few moments to see what other stores are charging. As a result, there are now shoppers who pride themselves on purchasing merchandise in a store—only they may be buying the goods from a better-priced competitor, not the store they’re standing in.

For obvious reasons, retailers hate this practice. Sales are being stolen from them—in their own store, no less!

Of course, if the store has the best prices, it has nothing to worry about. The problem (from the retailer’s perspective) is that no store ever has the best prices on everything, and that the old trick—luring shoppers in with low prices on certain items, then tempting them into buying full-priced stuff while they’re there—doesn’t work when it only takes the consumer seconds to whip out a phone and realize there’s no reason to pay full price. (As if you really needed a phone to tell you that.)

Today’s WSJ story on “Phone-Wielding Shoppers” gives the rundown on how smart consumers play retailers off each other with the help of immensely popular apps like TheFind and RedLaser. At the very least, new technology makes it more difficult for retailers to continue doing something that annoys shoppers to no end: charging different prices in the store versus their own website. The WSJ reports:

Because consumers made more frugal by the economic downturn are flocking to the cheapest offers they can find, comparison shopping via smartphones is making it harder for many retailers to charge higher prices in stores than on their websites.

“Those days are over,” says Laura Conrad, president of comparison site Despite the higher costs associated with a bricks-and-mortar store, “The line between offline and online has been blurred.”

The bigger concern for retailers is not that their brick-and-mortar stores will lose business to their own websites, but that the brand will lose out on purchases to their real competitors, be that Walmart, Amazon, Target, Best Buy, or whoever else.

Retailers have good reason to be scared of this breed of newly-informed bottom-dollar shopper demanding price transparency. The WSJ cites a study saying that on Black Friday 2010, 5.6% of consumers visiting retail websites were using mobile devices, up by a factor of 50 from last year’s Black Friday (0.1%). Those percentages still seem pretty small. But here’s one that’s much more impressive: In a survey cited by USA Today, nearly 6 in 10 consumers with mobile devices say they’ll use their phones to help them shop this holiday season. These consumers might not all be doing price comparisons with their phones, granted, but as word spreads on how easy it is to use these apps, the number of consumers shopping multiple stores at once will only increase.

You knew that retailers wouldn’t accept this trend sitting down. And what are they doing to fight back? They’re using smartphones and apps, of course, sometimes in creepy ways. The WSJ describes Best Buy’s partnership with TheFind, in which special ads will be sent to your phone if you’re standing in the store of a competitor, such as Walmart:

If shoppers use TheFind’s free app to compare prices on TVs at Wal-Mart, for example, the phone gleans the particulars from their recent search and shows them ads of similar electronics for sale at Best Buy. The items aren’t always identical, and the prices aren’t always better, but it is an attempt by Best Buy to enter the competition, similar to the way that marketers now target special offers to consumers based on what they are searching for on home computers…

“That is an opportunity to steal a sale right when someone is in the throes of making a decision. That is what makes mobile so powerful,” says Best Buy Chief Marketing Officer Barry Judge

Powerful, and creepy.

What worries me is that, since retailers are already known to adjust the prices you see online based on your shopping history, it isn’t hard to imagine the possibility that you’ll be offered merchandise for a different price while you’re standing in a competitor’s store than outside in the parking lot. You could also be offered a different price on your home computer, your work computer, and your laptop, and let’s not forget about the listed price in the actual store itself. Oh yeah, and for the most part, none of the prices you see in stores are completely set anyway—because store managers are probably willing to accept a lower price if you ask.

Is there an app that’d sort through this mess and give me all of these different pricing possibilities?

What Happens When Three Savvy Shoppers Hit the Mall, Smartphones in Hand
Why ‘For a Limited Time Only’ Drives Shoppers to Spend Like Crazy’
The Secrets of a Master Retail Manipulator