Google Places a Call to Bargain Hunters

New Android System Can Read UPC Symbols, Turning Cellphones Into Registries

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NEW YORK ( -- Santa's new helper: Google.

In unveiling its Android phone last week, Google highlighted application developers who have created tools for the device, including two -- ShopSavvy and CompareEverywhere -- that help shoppers find bargains by allowing them to compare prices across the web and in their local areas.

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If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Services such as Slifter and Frucall let people comparison shop from mobile phones, and Scanbuy is working to add special barcodes that can be read by mobile-phone software to send people from physical entities, such as the pages of a magazine, to digital content.

Prices and user reviews
But none of those products have UPC readers. In fact, most phones can't make clear heads or tails of UPC symbols because their cameras just aren't sophisticated enough to focus on them properly. The difference with G1, said Alexander Muse of Dallas-based ShopSavvy creator Big in Japan, is its camera has technology called variable focal length, which means it can adjust its focus to clearly read a UPC without taking a picture of it. The ShopSavvy app ties in to that piece of hardware, as well as location-based technology, to offer the best price across the web as well as in the vicinity. It also provides a variety of user reviews from across the web.

"It's Consumer Reports on your cellphone," Mr. Muse said. He said the next evolution will be to let users create wish lists and registries. "You can start scanning items anywhere and set the list up so that instead of tying items [to] a store, the items are tied to you," he said.

This may not be what retailers want to hear as they go into what is expected to be a tough holiday season. More consumers looking for ever-better prices could squeeze margins more.

'We're not the bus'
It's still early, and T-Mobile, through which the G1 is available, has yet to sell a single unit; they will be available Oct. 22. Research firm Strategy Analytics estimated that Google's Android smartphones would reach 400,000 units in the quarter, good for a 4% smartphone market share.

Mr. Muse said applications such as his shouldn't cause worry to margin-pressured retailers. Sure, change is scary, but the information is available, and people are already price-shopping online. "You can get on the bus or get run over," he said, then quickly added: "I'm not saying we're the bus. But people are becoming more connected, and these devices are more available."

Web purchases on rise in U.K.

When cash-crunched consumers do their shopping this year, a lot more of it will be online, according to internet research company eMarketer, which said web sales in the U.K. have been rising more rapidly than anticipated.

The company said the rocketing cost of fuel is a driver as shoppers cut back visits to bricks-and-mortar stores and turn to the web instead. While cutbacks and closures dog traditional shops, U.K. online sales are expected to reach $116.6 billion in 2008, up from $93.2 billion in 2007 -- a 28% increase. By 2012, Brits will spend $169.6 billion online.

On the other side of the information superhighway, traditional retail sales volume fell 3.9% between May and June 2008 in the U.K., the largest monthly drop since records began in 1986, eMarketer said.

There was a slight recovery (just over a 1% rise) in August as the cold, wet summer drove U.K. consumers to buy their fall clothes and shoes early, but analysts are predicting more doom for the months ahead. Food, clothing, appliances and housewares have joined music, CDs, DVDs, books and tickets on the list of most popular online buys.

About 76% of internet users are expected to shop online in the U.K. this year. By 2012 that should nudge up to almost 79%, but eMarketer predicts the average annual outlay per buyer will increase more significantly to $5,268 in 2012 from $4,256 in 2008.

It's not just the credit crunch that is driving consumers online, however. Brits are increasingly embracing smaller internet businesses alongside the big-name retailers, driving up the online-shopping market overall.

"U.K. e-buyers increasingly support niche retailers online, such as specialist food suppliers and boutique clothing shops," said Karin von Abrams, a senior analyst at eMarketer. "Small merchants with a clear value proposition, well-designed website and reliable service have every chance of building their customer base and capitalizing on the efficiencies of online selling."
-- Emma Hall
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