On GigaOm, Nathaniel Mott looks at the Amazon Books retail store and poses an interesting and incisive question—one that I’ve wondered about a time or two myself, but somehow never managed to articulate. If Amazon Books is such a threat to the model of existing brick-and-mortar stores, why aren’t more existing stores taking a lesson and doing some things the same way?
In particular, Mott zeroes in on the mutable pricing and online price-matching. Customers already use their smartphones in shopping, and it’s actually not to showroom most of the time. Frequently, they just want to look up more information about the product online even though they intend to buy the item then and there.
At the moment, the very idea of online price-matching is often treated as something new and bizarre, even if you’re trying to get a chain store such as Wal-Mart to price-match its own Internet arm, walmart.com. And if you do want such a match, you have to know the on-line price and ask for it. Mott thinks that retailers should do as Amazon does and automatically price-match their own online store. (He recognizes that price-matching competitors is an entirely different issue.)
And while they’re at it, they could also look into the idea of dynamic pricing. Amazon doesn’t actually list prices on items in-store at all, because it’s always possible the online price could change at any time. That does lead to some awkwardness among people who don’t have smartphones, of course, but it provides a great deal of flexibility that fixed prices don’t give you. (And it also makes less work for all the retail employees who have to go through and re-label everything when the price changes.)
After all, what if Amazon Books turns out to be more than just an experiment, and within a few years there’s an Amazon Books in every major city and many smaller ones? If their peculiar new model of retail turns out to be a hit with consumers, their competitors could be in danger of being left behind. Which seems to be something of a theme when it comes to Amazon’s competitors these days.
It is funny, when you come to think of it, just how little the retail shopping experience has changed since the advent of the smartphone. Before Amazon Books came about, about the only time you heard about the use of smartphones in a retail context was the retail-industry-wide howl of protest when Amazon ran a promotion around a price-checking app in December, 2011. Of course, there had been plenty of price-checking apps and services in the years prior to that, as I note in the articles I just linked, but they were always third-party services, not from places that actually wanted to be the one to sell you the thing, like Amazon.
And yet, smartphones are very powerful information-gathering tools. There are applications that will let you scan an item’s UPC code and pull up prices and other product information about it; Amazon even has one itself, a later evolution of that 2011 promotional app. Why don’t retail chain outlets make something similar? A Wal-Mart price-scanning app that would check a price on walmart.com, for example, or a Barnes & Noble app that does the same thing for BN.com. Then, if (you grant it permission to check your GPS location and it sees) you’re in a store of that chain at the moment, it could offer something Amazon couldn’t, since Amazon doesn’t have brick and mortar stores, like perhaps a discount, freebie, or other incentive for walking out of the store with the product right now.
Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary to go to quite the Amazon Books extreme of eliminating all price labels altogether, but something that makes use of the smartphones people who are shopping anyway carry with them might be a big competitive advantage. At any rate, it will be interesting to see if something like that becomes available, and who comes up with it first.