You walk into a retail store a few blocks from home and see something you’ve been eying for a while on sale. You pick it up, talk to the salesperson, put it down, walk around, think. When the salesperson is not looking, you text the UPC code to 262966, that spells “Amazon” on your mobile phone’s keypad. In about two seconds you get a text message back with Amazon’s price. It’s $10 cheaper and, since you’re on Amazon Prime, you get free shipping and because it’s mail order, there’s no tax. Done. A day or so later, the item is delivered to your door.
This is not a vision of the future, it’s the present and the service is called TextBuyIt from Amazon. In practice, it is way harder than described above. And, in practice, you will be much better off using the browser in your PDA or cell phone to make the purchase. But, if you don’t have a web-enabled PDA, this neat little text trick will work fine.
Just for fun, let’s think about life in the United States after February 17, 2009. That’s the day that a bunch of new wireless spectrum becomes available to Verizon and AT&T. In fact, let’s fast forward even a few more years to 2012 when LTE (Long Term Evolution) enabled wireless devices will be in common usage.
Imagine a trip to the same retail store. By then, almost everyone will have at least a 3G phone and many early adopters will have new 4G wireless broadband devices that have not been invented yet. Your iPhone’s web-browser is faster than your WiFi desktop or laptop browser is today. You’re in that same retail store. A quick snapshot of the barcode will bring up a list of online vendors that have the item in stock. How will this technology change the behavior of retail shopping? Can the price of an item be the same in a physical retail store (that is forced to carry inventory, pay for freight in, stock shelves and employ sales help) as it is from an online retailer? Will complete classes of retail stores simply cease to exist in their present form? Will retailers deploy special wireless spectrum blocking software to prevent comparison-shopping from inside their retail locations? Will it be an arms race – techno-rebels vs. the retail establishments?
Let’s move on. There are some items that must be tried on – like clothes, or, if you’re over six feet tall … cars. Then, there are things that must be “cash and carry” such as food, replacement parts or gifts. Certainly, some classes of retail must survive unscathed. There is the concept of service: we all love to speak to knowledgeable sales representatives, but are we willing to pay the extra price at retail?
As we work to understand how media consumption is changing with the addition of new digital consumer touchpoints. We might start thinking about how some of our other most basic behaviors are going to be affected by the advent of broadband cloud living. It’s coming very soon.
Last week, Microsoft had another bad experience at the FCC. They traveled to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate a consumer electronics technology that uses a part of the wireless spectrum known as “white space.” The technical details don’t matter for our purposes. Suffice it to say that it is a controversial issue that is pitting the television industry against the consumer electronics manufacturers. Sadly, for consumers and Microsoft, the demonstration was a failure. The FCC said that Microsoft wouldn’t be invited back. However, Google has some technology that may work, and they have offered to help any third party development teams that ask. (Hey Bill, you should give Eric a call.)
If white space can be used for consumer products, we will see a new class of gizmos and gadgets that will actually alter the way we “do life.” In fact, even if the technology does not use white space spectrum, there will be enough new wireless spectrum available for a new class of devices to evolve.
It is very hard to predict the future. Gas prices are up, the economy is a bit shaky. Our most time-tested economic indicators are in doubt. But, it is very easy to predict the probable futures of digital infrastructure and play a game of, “if it exists, here’s what people might do with it.”
Kudos to Jeff Bezos and his team at Amazon. I know that there will be a bunch of articles criticizing TextBuyIt. I used it today and, it is a little clunky. But, if this technology instigates even a slight behavioral change, we will look back on this week as the beginning of a new retail paradigm. Well done, Jeff!