With Flow, showrooming moves beyond barcodes

Feb. 26, 2014

The following is an excerpt from a recent conversation on RetailWire, reproduced here with kind permission. The author is RetailWire contributor Tom Ryan.

With the aid of augmented reality, an enhanced showrooming tool has arrived with the new Amazon app update. Instead of needing to take a photo of an item or scanning its barcode, the new feature, Flow, recognizes items via their packaging, logos, artwork or other visual features.

Waving an iPhone's camera in front a shelf or counter identifies items "within seconds." Once recognized, the items are subsequently placed in a queue that can be added to an Amazon cart. In a statement, Amazon portrayed it as a tool to quickly build up a shopping list at home.

"Flow instantly matches products in your home to items on Amazon," said Sam Hall, vice president of Amazon Mobile. "Once you have added that box of garbage bags or baby wipes, just keep moving your phone over other packaged goods you need to restock and the Amazon app recognizes the product and saves it into your search history. You can search items lined up on the counter, stored on a shelf, or pick them out of a cupboard, taking care of your shopping needs in seconds."

First developed in 2011 by Amazon's A9 division, Flow has been available in standalone apps.

The big advantage is speed. Bar codes are hard to find on packages and the smartphone camera often has trouble focusing. For many cases of product, items must be scanned individually.

Writing for Wired, Roberto Baldwin said that, although Flow isn't always accurate, most items he tested were recognized in about two seconds.

"It's all part of the company's goal to take you from 'I need that' to 'I bought that' in less than 30 seconds," he writes. At the store level, Mr. Baldwin said users "can use Flow to scan a row of competing products, then compare their prices and Amazon ratings once they land in your queue."

Flow's history feature gives the user access to all their scanned items, sorted by date, product category, item name or scan type.

RetailWire BrainTrust comments:

Flow is definitely something retailers need to pay attention to. It's the kind of technology that only gets better with time, so today's shortcomings will improve, especially with Amazon's deep pockets and strategic intentions.

As I've written before, this is a serious move towards commodification around price. As we often discuss here, coupled with same day delivery and stores that don't create an experience that maintains loyal patronage, Amazon is going to put the hurt on many. What makes this even more powerful for Amazon and more painful for typical retailers, is that it works anywhere, not just in-store.

Plus, Flow is easier for online competitors to copy than for retailers to fend off, so I would expect a multi-pronged attack on the traditional b&m retail model. — Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

I wonder just how many shopping tools a normal shopper needs to make a good decision? Scan a barcode, shoot a picture of an item, or get promo'd to death via email for things you don't even use or need.

We all know with the change factor in retail and the retail barrage attack by the Millennials that showrooming is a common thing. Shoppers will mess with Flow until it bores them and await the next new "toy" to install on their mobile devices.

For retailers, it is just more Millennial noise competition or M/Noise. M/Noise competition involves attempting to arm the shopper so they will make their buy at an online site.

Great store-based retailers are dealing with this every day and they have an edge that no M/Noise effort can duplicate. That edge is people. Yes, there is no app for store associate care. That care is what makes more shoppers return, sign up for loyalty programs, and tell friends about the stores that they shop.

So, best of luck to the M/Noise tool creators, but watch out — when the top retailers refine their online stores, you will see one large, end-to-end retail competitor coming at you … dragging along all the Millennials it can. — Tom Redd, Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

I'm very bullish that visual search will be an important part of the shopping experience in the not-too-distant future. The current Amazon Flow experience is a nice proof of concept, but it's not currently a game changer.

The Flow database of products is too limited, and too prone to misidentifying products. It's strong for media (books, videos, CDs), but who showrooms those categories? For CPG it's iffy, and it doesn't try to support other categories.

An alternative implementation like CamFind (with over 1 million users) currently has a much better hit rate.

The Amazon Flow technology is very cool for its use of the live camera stream, and I have every confidence the database will eventually catch up, but it's not yet a game changer. Once the tech gets more robust and built into all the wearables we are likely to own, we will be in a world where close to 100 percent of purchases are digitally influenced. — Jason Goldberg, VP Commerce Strategy, Razorfish

Topics: Digital Merchandising , Merchandising , Mobile Retail , Omnichannel / Multichannel , Online Retailing , Point-of-Purchase / POP , Technology

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