Shopping: The Mobile Game

I confess that there are many times when I do not feel of this earth. There is a new conceit in TV ads that involves people using their cell phones to scope out bargains and available inventory at multiple stores. Generally, the husband is at one big box store dickering with the salesman while talking by cell to the wife, who is harassing another salesman at a competing store. I can't tell if this scenario actually happens anywhere or if it's just another ad-fueled fantasy about how consumer capitalism should work. Is acquiring objects now a quasi-military operation requiring walkie-talkies, perhaps surveillance cameras, reconnaissance? At some point, does Mom (the obvious General in these maneuvers) rappel from the girded ceiling of Costco to lock and load the credit card and seal the deal?

I am told by my partner (who takes it as her personal mission to make me feel obsolete...or just oblivious) that I am indeed out of the loop on this one. "Honey, I go with you to malls," she tells me. "What you do there does not by any means constitute shopping." Apparently shopping is an official sport now. I don't know if it involves a professional league, rules, contracts with major networks and endorsement deals. But knowing my family, I am damn sure it entails some specialized equipment, lessons at $40 a pop, and another trip to the mall.

Sprint's new Mobile Shopper application, free and accessible via the Web browser, launches today as a kind of mobile game for you Earthlings. Handset-based comparison shopping has been a mobile wet dream for years. Consumer Reports deployed its first application years ago with an eye toward bringing at-home product research into the store. A number of SMS-based search engines let you enter SKUs and a Zip to get nearby pricing in return.

Mobile Shopper is the most ambitious play yet by a carrier to weave the phone into the great shopping tournament that apparently is occurring without me down there on the Big Blue planet. It meets the user with a rainbow-colored menu of options to "PriceIt" (search by brand and item), "BrowseIt" (peruse catalogs) and "Get First Dibs" (text alert reminder to use the service). Trippy. While I have hallucinated during some shopping outing with the ladies of my house, I always chalked it up to mind-numbing boredom.

There are more than a dozen featured vendors in Sprint's Mobile Shopper mix, although I found that a lot of searches ended up with Wal-Mart. In most of my searches, the engine led me to a single vendor, which I presume had the best price. The engine seems to default to a single vendor, and occasionally mentions an alternative. As with most online price comparison engines, this one leaves me suspicious about how deals cut with preferred partners limit my results.

To its credit Sprint's Mobile Shopper, which is powered by mshopper, is a decent search engine. It can show images of most items to confirm that the hit is what you intended, and there are functions for emailing the quote to yourself or passing it to a friend.

Mobile Shopper seems to promise true m-shopping, in that the final price quote page invites you to buy the item on the spot using a PIN code if you register your credit card and shipping address with the system. I didn't venture that far, but one can imagine the potential power of being able to buy an item from one electronics store while standing before a higher priced version you are evaluating hands-on at a big box store. If mobilized price comparisons and m-shopping take off, as they certainly will, it escalates and complicates the digital marketing plans of many retailers. Now they have to account for another route to competitive pricing -- in their own stores. One can imagine a mobile marketing spending spree evolving, as retailers buy up defensive positions on comparison engines.

Having a price comparison engine in your pocket at the store has the potential to turn shopping from a game to a bloodsport with salespeople. Instead of fumbling to show a salesperson printouts from rival online vendors, you can show them the phone and a buy button. Does "Bob" in the BestBuy shirt beat the deal on your phone 00 or do you hit the Buy button to purchase that HDTV from a rival right now? You're starting to sweat through that blue shirt, Bob. Did you want to call in a manager, Bob? The clock is ticking, Bob. Deal or no deal?

Okay, maybe shopping is not the right sport for me. I may get into it too much.

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