December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Merchant Beware

(Page 2 of 2)

In addition to a handful of e-retailers, some comparison shopping sites are launching mobile sites. While most people use comparison sites on desktop PCs to decide where to shop online or which stores to visit, mobile comparison site operators are targeting shoppers who did not anticipate the need for comparison, or find they need more information once in stores.

Two months ago, a mobile comparison site launched with the mission to help consumers find better prices while they’re shopping not online but in stores. Barcle, located at Mobile.Barcle.com, enables shoppers with mobile devices to enter the bar code of a product and receive search results that show prices for the exact same product at web-only and multi-channel retailers. Barcle claims relationships with more than 900 merchant partners. It has negotiated access to pricing information, updated daily, from many partners.

Read all about it

Barcle, accessible via any mobile device with a web browser, has been promoting its site through issuing press releases, contacting bloggers and purchasing ads on Fark.com, a news aggregator and social networking site, says Ted Baltuch, founder of Barcle, which earns commissions through a pay-per-click revenue-sharing model.

To use the free site, a shopper in a store enters a product’s 12-digit bar code. The site returns prices for the product by retailer. Consumers can stop there and try to get a store retailer to lower its prices. Or they can click on the links that accompany the pricing information to visit another retailer’s web site.

Sites in some cases are mobile versions but in most cases are standard versions, a hurdle to shoppers completing a purchase via their mobile phones. However, they could make a note to purchase a product via their PC at home, to the detriment of the store retailer.

ShopLocal is another company pioneering product locating and comparison via mobile devices. Its mobile offering is part of a service called Where, from mobile technology vendor uLocate. Shoppers can download the Where application via a text message from uLocate.

The application works with global positioning satellite phones, showing shoppers search results that contain not only product, pricing and retailer information but also GPS-enabled maps that direct them step-by-step to stores.

Where, which also includes information and directions for any number of locations such as restaurants and ATMs, costs $2.99 per month and is available to users who have phone plans with telecommunications providers Alltel, Boost or Sprint Nextel. Major research firms do not have precise numbers for the percent of mobile phone users who have global positioning satellite phones. However, the firms say this number is a small fraction of total phones. ShopLocal is promoting its part of the mobile service on its home page and through e-mail marketing.

ShopLocal secures store and product information from its partners through methods and formats each retailer chooses: application program interfaces, XML documents, Excel files, data feeds and others. ShopLocal standardizes retailer data in its database.

It cost ShopLocal only the time of some employees-who provided Where access to the company’s platform and data via its application program interface-to become part of the Where service. It joined Where in September and earns revenue from its mobile offering by receiving a small share of Where’s monthly consumer subscriptions. So far ShopLocal’s part of the service has had a couple thousand users, the company reports.

An uphill battle

ShopLocal admits getting users for its mobile service will be an uphill battle. “Use of mobile technology in retail is low,” says Patrick Flanagan, ShopLocal’s director of product management who heads up the company’s mobile efforts. “Americans are not widely using their phones and other mobile devices for Internet access, so the potential user base right now is small.”

Still, the company is hopeful. “The usefulness of the mobile phone is becoming a lot greater,” says Bob Armour, chief marketing officer at ShopLocal. “Though we have not yet seen a ton of pick-up in use of our mobile product, we think it is coming, and the product fits the need.”

While consumer use of the mobile web still is low, it is a platform readily available to companies looking to wade into m-commerce-a platform some believe can get e-retailers right where they want to be.

“It’s all about how close you can get to shoppers,” Nicol of AbeBooks says. “For a web site, shoppers have to go to the site. E-mail gets you closer because they check it on a regular basis. Mobile is another step closer to shoppers.”

bill@verticalwebmedia.com

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