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Showrooming moves beyond barcodes

February 10, 2014

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.

[Image: Amazon Flow

"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.

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Discussion Questions:

What do you think of Flow as a shopping tool for consumers? Will the technology make showrooming a bigger threat to brick and mortar retailers?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Will Flow make showrooming a bigger threat to brick and mortar retailers?

Comments:

If Flow works as well as described, it will make item and price checking more convenient for consumers. Yes, they will use Flow or the next improved app that follows it.

The biggest showrooming threat to bricks and mortar retailers is NOT a smartphone app like Flow.

The two Big Fails of bricks and mortar retailers right now are:

1. Failure to differentiate on experience and services that ecommerce can not provide.

2. Failure to rapidly rollout their own store apps and integrated Omni-channel strategies that meet the needs of consumers who are voting for a "seamless experience."

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Chris Petersen, PhD, President, Integrated Marketing Solutions

Flow can be used to restock items that consumers have previously purchased or to comparison shop while in stores. Either way, this new tool empowers Amazon to become virtually a one-stop shopping destination.

Using Amazon Fresh consumers can have their grocery needs met with the swipe of a package. Using Amazon's stable of stocked products and affiliated merchants, consumers can buy almost everything else.

This boosts the value of Amazon Prime membership (the cost of which will probably be raised soon) and puts Amazon in the enviable position of being a hub for almost everything a consumer could want.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

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.

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Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

Flow seems like a shopping tool I would be more likely to use. As a researcher I don't advocate generalizing from a sample of one. So I'm just speaking for myself (but thinking there are others like me out there).

The easier you make the process for me, the more likely I am to at least try it. If it meets my expectations or exceeds them, I'll be a repeat user.

I use technology a lot for the work I do, but limit the apps I use for shopping. In fact, I'd rather not use apps. Flow makes it seem that it can be helpful to me without the fuss (in my imagination). So I think Flow technology will make showrooming a bigger threat to brick and mortar retailers, because there will be more first time triers and then if it works well for them, committed users.

Ease of use is what spotlights this path of little-to-no resistance for the hesitant, like me.

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Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

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.

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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% of purchases are digitally influenced.

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Jason Goldberg, VP Commerce Strategy, Razorfish

Flow sounds like a great integration of shopping list and price comparison. I think that users will increase their reliance on Flow for consumables. Not sure it makes any advances for electronics, for example and other products where showrooming makes sense.

Speaking of showrooming and retailer responses, here's a personal experience from a couple of weeks ago. Bought a Samsung flat screen TV at Best Buy. Both the BB clerk and the Samsung rep - who was right on us with a special price - did the showrooming for us. One with a tablet, one with the BB computer. It was a full-service experience.

Seems like a smart retail reaction - adaptation. Survival of the fittest, and all that.

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Dan Raftery, President, Raftery Resource Network Inc.

Flow, like other innovations from Amazon's A9 is about defining and then re-defining the art of the possible. It's about pushing the envelope in retail while arming the consumer with participatory tools that in themselves become "engaging."

This will be foundation for further advancements that make it easier to shop - regardless of where the retailer sits on the physical-digital spectrum.

Visual search mimics what we do every day without thinking. It's here to stay in one form (flow) or another!

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Mohamed Amer, Vice President, Global Consumer Industries, SAP

Let me put it this way, I read about Amazon's upgraded app that includes Flow and I had to have it! I didn't even have the app on my phone before and I was not an Amazon Prime user, until now.

When I saw the possibilities of refilling my common items this way and getting free shipping, all for the convenience of at home delivery, I jumped on it.

My husband and I use a grocery app that is similar in that I can scan items and add them to the grocery list and he is notified. Since he does all the shopping, He simply looks at the app before he goes into the store and voila, we are in sync.

This has nothing to do with showrooming and, in my opinion, is all about those standard items that we buy over and over.

The in-store experience still can't be beat for those surprise and emotional purchases we make. Retailers need to get this and get to work on their customer experience quotients if they want to win!

Lee Kent, Let's meet share and succeed in Retail, YourRetailAuthority

I played around with Flow and it does a good job with book covers and consumer product packages. I can see it tie well with their grocery strategy for replenishment and traditional books merchandise. I would to curious to see if Amazon chooses to license that technology out or keep it as a retail competitive advantage.

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Kenneth Leung, Director of Enterprise Industry Marketing, Avaya

If handled the right way, showrooming can help brick and mortar retailers. Taking it to another level, as an example, I love doing business with Guitar Center. They not only encourage showrooming, they showroom for you. They check prices on line from their competitors when you check out. As a customer, you get all the value of their expertise and the confidence that you're getting competitive pricing. That's about as good as it gets.

Now, back to Flow...any tool that makes it easier for the consumer to shop is a great thing. How should brick and mortar stores react? The same way they did with the other apps that allow you to price compare. There will be some customers that will use the app to buy from Amazon.com, but I think the majority of customers will want instant gratification - getting their items while they are in the store versus having to wait for a delivery or shipment from Amazon.com.

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Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

On-the-fly product image recognition using mobile phone cameras is not exactly a brand-new idea. I advised a machine learning technology company a few years ago that was investigating this. It made great progress, but it also learned how the execution is complicated by several significant factors.

One is the need to maintain a reliable library of reference images and related product records. This is not easy. There are millions of potential items and packages to curate. Just keeping up with the UPCs is a challenge in this regard.

Flow might work well under somewhat controlled conditions, such as an isolated package on a plain background, but performance will be compromised when a shopper tries to process an image in context of a shelf display. Variations in lighting, scale and package orientation add to the complexity of this.

I'm not saying that practical and technical issues like these can't be resolved, but by the time they are, I suspect the showrooming phenomenon could be a fading concern.

So I don't see Flow as a reason for most shoppers to alter their behaviors just yet.

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

Boy, we're just a heartbeat away from a "Minority Report" kind of world, aren't we? Well, despite the fact that it could be disruptive for traditional grocery stores, this looks like an opportunity for retailers to me.

The goal for every retailer should be this: "Beat Flow!" That is, make sure that the product you put out will not read on Flow due to its uniqueness. The app should be used by retailers to detect whether or not they're mundane enough to be clocked by Amazon.

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Lee Peterson, EVP Creative Services, WD Partners

I think that Flow is an amazing tool that will truly help both customers and the major retailer respectively. While I don't truly believe that this tool is meant to help users "create shopping lists" at home, this is a great step toward technology fully enabling customers to find the perfect information within seconds to help them make purchasing decisions. Although this will make showrooming a bigger threat to some, the ways to combat showrooming will remain regardless of technology. Customer service, personalized experiences, white glove service, price matching and product support will help big box retailers move beyond these issues.

Consumers should be excited about Flow and traditional retailers should keep implementing strategies to focus on competing with Amazon in their own way.

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Jesse Karp, Omnichannel Consulting Manager & Loyalty Practice Lead, Cognizant Business Consulting

So much about showrooming deals with comparison price shopping in-store, and what retailers can do to stop it, acknowledge it, or deal with it by focusing on improving the shopping experience. But this in many ways pre-empts the opportunity for brick and mortar retail to compete with a pure play online channel like Amazon.

If Flow works as advertised, the convenience and ability to receive timely direct shipment of the items on your list could very well take sales away from retailers. That shift in turn could be a wake-up call to the suppliers to start looking seriously at alternative sales channels like Amazon to see if there's an incremental growth opportunity. The key is simplicity and not needing the application to programmatically have to scan and look up a code or other visual identifier on packaging.

You can almost imagine shopping as something best experienced in person largely disappearing as people are just getting busier and busier and would rather use their time for other activities.

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Gib Bassett, Global Program Director for Consumer Goods, Teradata Corp.

My company, Chain Store Guide, just published a piece I wrote based on my recent visit to a Best Buy location in search of a super zoom camera. As it turned out, a long-term associate of the camera department suggested I visit the company's website to locate a fairly popular make and model I was considering.

On Googling the website I was greeted by phrase, Best Buy: Experience the Ultimate Showroom.
The greeting proved to be inaccurate. My experience was if anything an embarrassment for Best Buy's omni-channel capabilities.

The piece can be read in its entirety here.

Arthur Rosenberg, Senior Editor, Chain Store Guide

This is a next level development that will attract consumers - helpful information for a purchase decision. For a number of shoppers, this closes an information gap.

There is an opportunity for the brick and mortar retailer - the shopper is in the store, trying to make a decision, making it the best time for a sales associate to assist for purchase. The question becomes, are there associates available that are armed with product knowledge to help?

Anne Bieler, Sr. Associate, Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions

I still don't believe showrooming is a viable threat to retailers that take advantage of the effective merchandising and marketing tools available today. Any tool that helps shoppers make buying decisions is a value to the industry. It is up to merchants to apply the most efficient deployment of them to make them successful.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

Anyone who hasn't downloaded and tried this, and doesn't have a bias has to admit and believe it is going to rock the world. If your product is not on it, the one that is will be purchased. I'm surprised it isn't already recommending a similar item. Surely that's to come.

Sid Raisch, President, Advantage Development System

Not applicable in the real world - this has been attempted for the past 10 years. CPGs change their packaging and logos frequently and different sizes have different looks. What if a Disney movie come out and they change the product design with a Disney movie character? These are the real-world scenarios.

It is far more easier to use voice commands such as Siri or S-Voice to perform a product lookup with better accuracy right here, right now.

Ed Dunn, Founder, (Stealth Operation)

Flow is an excellent shopping tool for consumers and a well thought-out update that provides ease of use. I like it better as an enhanced Amazon app update than as a standalone app. This move by Amazon brings Flow into greater play, because it will be so easy to access, use and return to for scanned product history.

In my opinion, brick and mortar retailers should embrace showrooming instead of seeing it as a threat. Augmented reality apps are becoming part of our everyday shopping experience and will continue to change the retail landscape. Retailers need to follow suit.

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Karen S. Herman, Founder & Design Director, Gustie Creative LLC

Flow seems like a great tool for making shopping lists, restocking on items that you currently have at home etc. When it comes to showrooming, however, I don't know that it will have a huge impact. Although the technology may be more efficient than scanning a bar code or typing in a UPC in a search engine or comparison shopping engine, I don't know that it's THAT much more efficient. Not to mention that it would only compare prices to Amazon rather than to all the other retailers (Both online and offline).

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Alexander Rink, CEO, 360pi

Flow's a very intelligent app, no doubt.

Will it be a threat to brick and mortar retailers? Yep. That's why b&m stores must work extra hard to provide a truly personalized and engaging in-store experiences.

Price-matching and other gimmicks won't cut it anymore. Retailers need to invest in the staff (train associates well), technology (beacons, POS, mobile, in-store) and even the decor to make their store as unforgettable as possible.

Francesca Nicasio, Retail Expert and Author, Vend

Flow sounds like a great tool for making shopping lists and restocking on items that you currently have at home. When it comes to showrooming, however, I don't know that it will have a huge impact. Although the technology may be more efficient than scanning a bar code or typing in a UPC in a search engine or comparison shopping engine, it is not THAT much more efficient.

Furthermore, it only compares prices to Amazon rather than to all the other retailers - great for Amazon, good but not great for consumers that want the full picture. One additional advantage Flow may bring to Amazon is potentially lowering the barrier to showrooming adoption by using a technology that even smartphone Luddites are familiar with (the camera), as opposed to having to learn a new one (scanning).

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Alexander Rink, CEO, 360pi

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