Putting stores’ checkout lanes in your pocket

New York TimesOctober 13, 2013 



All the world’s a shopping cart.

A wave of experiments at various companies could take consumer convenience (and impulsiveness) to new heights. The ultimate vision is a form of shopping nirvana, where consumers can buy what they covet on the spot – straight from an attention-grabbing magazine ad, for instance, or off a television screen, or even from a refrigerator.

Last week, MasterCard announced a partnership with Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, Wired, Vanity Fair and other popular magazines, that will allow digital readers to instantly buy items described in an article or showcased in an advertisement by tapping a shopping cart icon on the page. The partnership, called ShopThis, will begin in the November tablet edition of Wired, due on Tuesday.

Peapod, an online grocer in the Northeast and Midwest that provides home delivery, recently developed a feature on its mobile app that allows customers to restock household staples by scanning bar codes with their smartphones at home.

“You are finishing the box of Cheerios, pouring your last bowl,” explained Mike Brennan, Peapod’s chief operating officer, “and before throwing the box away, you take out your phone and scan the bar code.” The order goes straight to the consumer’s virtual shopping basket.

And Paydiant, a company that develops mobile payment platforms for clients in the finance and retail industries, has created a technology for scanning a QR, or quick response, code off a television screen to redeem a coupon or instantly buy something a viewer fancies in a commercial or perhaps even during a television show.

“We have developed it, but we haven’t deployed it,” said Chris Gardner, a co-founder of Paydiant. “I would imagine someone is going to want us to do that over the course of the next year.”

Such developments seem a natural extension of a culture that has immediate access to information, and more.

“The whole world right now is about instant gratification,” said Matt McKenna, the founder and president of Red Fish Media, a digital and mobile marketing agency based in Miami, who is working with retailers to amp up their mobile sales strategy, including developing personalized digital look books that text new releases to consumers for instant purchase.

And while many experiments like ShopThis are in very early stages, they have the potential to shake up traditional business relationships among advertisers, consumers and merchants as they gain traction.

“With any sort of disruptive technology, people want to walk before they run,” Gardner said.

For example, the ability to sell directly to a consumer could squeeze some of the so-called middlemen of commerce like big-name retailers.

“If Sony started selling stuff directly on a TV commercial, Best Buy might not particularly like that,” Gardner said. “Once you can go directly to consumers, there’s always the possibility of disintermediating one of the middlemen. Efficient markets don’t like middlemen.”

Still, he and others say it is unclear what the effect will be, and established players like Amazon are unlikely to suffer.

In the media world, technology like MasterCard’s ShopThis could change an already precarious relationship with advertisers. Some companies may find it unappealing to buy an advertisement in a publication that may be highlighting a competitor’s product with technology that allows a click through to an instant sale. On the other hand, the ability to generate direct sales from an ad could be tantalizing to advertisers and merchants, spurring competition and bringing new revenue to struggling media companies.

Cond Nast plans to study Wired’s experience before deciding whether to expand the program to its other magazines, but Wired’s publisher, Howard Mittman, said he believes the technology will provide an enormous benefit to advertisers.

“This is a moment of opportunity to provide better service to our advertisers,” Mittman said.

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