eBay Mobile: Moving Beyond Barcode, Into VIN, OCR and Gift Cards

When eBay purchased mobile barcode scanning application RedLaser last month, it was the start of a mobile strategy that has the auction giant moving well beyond traditional barcodes. Plans include support for 2D and 3D barcodes, QR codes, Code 128, gift card codes and, interestingly enough, car VINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers).

"Our plan is to integrate the barcode scanning capability into all of our applications and to evolve (to support) every kind of code, all of the various forms and shapes of barcodes," said eBay Mobile VP Steve Yankovich.

The expansion will also include support for Microsoft Tag by next year, along with an Optical Character Reader (OCR) and possibly some sort of image recognition, similar to Amazon's Mechanical Turk effort. That recognition capability, coupled with global plans focusing on the three most popular eBay regions beyond the U.S. (U.K., Australia and Germany), is an eBay Mobile effort that would allow mobile consumers to search for almost any product they encounter without having to keystroke in any characters. In essence, the phone's digital camera would simply capture and interpret almost any product.

Although not technologically complicated, the most startling change would be the seamless ability to scan used--and new--cars for instant vehicle history and to do some quick price comparisons. And, yes, that's an area where eBay's auctions are likely to compare well.

Part of that reasoning is brand trust. A loyal Nordstrom customer is unlikely be swayed away for a lower price. But an exact barcode match would at least make the case that the merchandise is likely identical. A Wal-Mart or Marshall's customer, on the other hand, is presumably already shopping for price and, therefore, may be more open to even lower priced alternatives.

But those chains are local and likely have strong value for the customer. In other words, customers may very well "trust" the local Wal-Mart or Macy's store more than they would an unknown eBay seller. In a new or used car lot, though, trust is generally minimal--if it exists at all. In that situation, an unknown seller--backed by eBay's brand and infrastructure--may have a higher trust level than a car dealer selling many brands.

eBay's Yankovich makes a good argument that more customer-product interactions--purchase "inspirations," as he put it--happen outside the brick-and-mortar floor and in the field. It may be while visiting a friend (spotting an interesting looking toaster) or at a garage sale or restaurant. Mobile is the only practical way to capture those opportunities and convert them into a product search, either to be performed on the spot or to be saved and examined later.

One of the information gaps at eBay is that it has no idea what most RedLaser users do after their searches. If the consumer scans an item in a store and then purchases the item at POS--or even chooses to not do anything--the app has no way of knowing that. Even if the RedLaser search displays a much better deal at an online site, Yankovich said most consumers won't make the online purchase immediately. They're more likely to leave the store and complete the purchase hours later, at home or at work, probably on a desktop machine. Again, there's no practical way to track that.

Gathering information on what consumers typically do with price comparison shopping information will be a top priority at eBay, Yankovich said.