November 29, 2010, 3:06 PM

A holiday tale of mobile bar scanning woe

The hot m-commerce technology performs poorly.

Lead Photo

A flurry of mobile bar scanning apps have debuted in the last few months, some freestanding and some incorporated by retailers into their apps. The premise is fantastic: Hold your smartphone camera above a bar code, the app displays the product along with video, customer reviews and more, or displays multiple stores where the product can be found along with prices for comparison purposes. Unfortunately, in this reporter’s experience, the technology did not live up to the hype.

Last Wednesday, Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving, my friend Diane and I decided to have a grand shopping expedition up and down Chicago’s famous North Michigan Avenue. I drafted her to help me with a test of mobile bar code scanning. So we were two hungry shoppers armed with iPhones and three different mobile bar code scanning apps ready to experience the latest and greatest in mobile commerce.

At Ralph Lauren, I tried opening one app to no avail. I was connected at 3G, and I could open other apps, but this app just spun the icon round and round and nothing happened. Diane used another app to scan a garment and received the message “No matches found.” At Macy’s I opened up another app and scanned a shirt—the app found no matches. And that happened again at other stores. At a specialty shoe shop I scanned a pair of shoes and up popped a shirt. We were dumbfounded.

But at The Body Shop mobile bar code scanning did finally live up to its promise, and boosted online sales. I scanned a hand cream on Diane’s behalf and the app instantly displayed the cream and numerous stores where it could be purchased. The price of the cream in the store was $24.95; the price on the retailer’s e-commerce site was $20. Diane immediately said with prices like that, she’d buy gifts from The Body Shop later online. Success.

When I got home I decided to run a few more tests. I grabbed some DVDs and did some scanning using two different apps. It worked perfectly every time, displaying the product and all the stores and differing prices.

I can only conclude that these first-generation mobile bar code scanning apps have bugs that need working out. If they can’t find matches on a product, something is wrong with the database or product feeds they’re searching. And if they’re displaying the wrong product, something is wrong with their querying.

I’m going to keep on trying and watch for app software updates, which hopefully will improve performance. Time will tell. But the companies with these apps better get their acts together quick, because if consumers’ first impressions are frustrating, consumers may never use the apps again.

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