Mobile Barcode Scans: Pushed By E-Commerce, But Only Helping In-Store?

E-Commerce sites have been pushing a series of mobile applets that can scan barcodes in-store. The idea is that consumers standing in a Target can scan the barcode of an item they're interested in purchasing and instantly see a list of online sites offering that item, along with its respective prices.

In theory, this will reveal if that retailer is charging way too much. It's an option that E-tailers love; they see themselves making lots of sales off of greedy physical stores, especially because the sites typically have lower overhead expenses and, as a result, can sometimes charge a lot less.

But that's the opposite of what seems to be happening. The mobile barcode scan (the iPhone's RedLaser app is one of the better options) is apparently helping in-store sales, to the extent that it's having any effect at all. Consumers simply find the scans comforting, which makes them more likely to buy the item in-store because the online prices are not usually that much less than the in-store price.

Given that the consumer is already standing in that Target holding the desired item, there needs to be a rather substantial price differential to justify leaving the store and waiting for snailmail to deliver the item days from now. In short, the mobile barcode scans are a great idea for brick-and-mortars but are probably a weaker investment for online-only merchants.

The trick for E-Commerce sites is to get those scans to happen outside the store, at some place where an E-Commerce purchase is easier for consumers to make. It could still work wonders for out-of-stock situations, except that there would likely be no barcodes to scan if there's no inventory left. (Sure, the consumer could type the name of the product into a browser, but where's the high-tech fun in that? At least use the voice-recognition power of Google's iPhone app to generate a little geeky self-respect.)

If these barcode apps become popular, we wonder how some chains with price-match guarantees will deal with the situation? Will a BlackBerry screen filled with online pricing that's between 10 percent and 40 percent lower qualify?