Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mobile apps can change the way we shop, effect local merchants; Amazon adds bar scanning to iPhone app

I don't know how many executives in charge of their newspaper's mobile strategy have come out of the advertising departments, but one gets a sense that the answer may be 'none'. The reason I figure this is that the all too common theme of newspaper apps is that they are RSS feed delivery systems -- and that's about it.

I may have a 'J' degree and have worked as both a reporter and editor, but my professional background is heavy in advertising. Yes, I've walked door-to-door to service and see local clients, so I'm a bit biased when it comes to my view of the role of advertising: local merchants should be considered as much a newspaper's customer base as its readership. But news apps seem to forget this, and as a result are missing out on another opportunity to solidify their role as the primary way a local business promotes itself.

That little rant was inspired by an update Amazon has made to its iPhone app. The Amazon app has been around a while but I deleted my version of the app because it just didn't see that the old app was a better way to check out Amazon.com than using the iPhone's browser.

But today Amazon has added a feature to its app that fundamentally changes the game: the app now uses the phone's camera as a bar scan device, instantly producing a search of Amazon for the product being scanned. Now a shopper can go into a local merchant, scan a book, CD, DVD (or whatever) and see what the price is on Amazon.

The Amazon app is not the first to offer bar scanning. One app that I've found incredibly useful is called RedLaser. The advantage of RedLaser is that the user scans an item and a list of the same product comes up from local merchants.

Besides the 'gee wiz' factor involved here, the impact on shopping habits is easy to see. Now any shopper can find out instantly whether they are better off buying that book online rather than paying full retail at a local store. It may be great for the shopper, but the downside is easy to see.
(I once showed someone in an AT&T store the RedLaser app and the customer was instantly sold them on buying an iPhone. Apps were a completely new concept to them -- they just thought people were buying iPhones for the 'cool' factor. Once they saw RedLaser they began to see the iPhone in a whole new way.)

But the point I'd like to make is simply that by adding a little feature like bar scanning to their app, Amazon has suddenly improved their app 100 percent.

Local news apps have pretty much been off-the-shelf products produced by third party developers. The developers are building the apps mainly to create their own ad networks, so they create one-size-fits-all apps that may, or may not have some unique features to them. Some apps now come with traffic maps, utilizing Google Maps; some are adding social networking capabilities. But few (really none) are adding shopping features to their news apps.

One app I've applauded is The Scoop, an app from the New York Times which brings in restaurant and entertainment content, maps the events on a map, etc. The Times chose to build a separate app for this rather than incorporate it into its main NYT app, but the idea is good.

But if I am in New York and need to find a dry cleaners I am not going to use a newspaper app, will I? Instead I'll probably try Google Maps first, then maybe a Yellow Pages app if I have one. The newspaper app isn't an option -- at least not right now. Why is this? Because the word "content" appears to be the sole possess of the editorial department when it should also apply to both display and classified advertising.

(More on this tomorrow.)