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iPhone App “Save Benjis” Poses Hard Questions for Retailers

When Apple first opened the iPhone App Store, one of the applications to float to the top of reviewers’ lists was a little free app called “Save Benjis ” (referring to $100 bills with Benjamin Franklin on the front). It allows users to search a product using the iPhone, and if the user finds a better price online, he or she can purchase it in just a few clicks, depending on how they have their settings configured. This is everything that Google’s mobile product search and Amazon’s texting purchase service have been going after, but with the shiny Apple interface.

Store-based retailers beware: the intent of the app is to give someone standing at the shelf an opportunity to make sure that they’re getting the best deal. From the App Store’s Save Benjis description:

"Sometimes there is no substitute for actually being in a physical store. You get to try an item out or try it on, but in today's economy you can't afford not to get the best price, and online price comparison shopping is the best way to guarantee that. Save Benjis gives you the best of both worlds."

The app has ranked anywhere from 50 to 79 in the App Store Free Apps ranking - out of well over 200 free applications, speaking to its relative popularity. Granted, iPhone penetration is still small so we're not talking about changing the world in one go.

However, no one can deny that the App Store and all its apps are game-changing for the mobile industry. But what does it mean for retailers? I spoke with Cortis Clark, CEO of Sol Robots , the company that developed the Save Benjis app. From that conversation, I see three big implications:

1.     How much easier it can be to get in the mCommerce game.  Sol Robots was originally a company that sold educational desktop-based applications. Because of the high seasonality of the business, founder Cortis Clark saw the iPhone SDK as an opportunity to develop something that would offset some of that seasonality, while also having the potential to be a "killer app." The company looked at the iPhone SDK, and considered a lot of different technologies. For Clark, part of the challenge was managing against the June deadline for the launch of the App Store, and that helped dictate some of the choices. For example, the search engine that provides the price comparison information on Save Benjis is actually run through a web site that already does this - FindersCheapers . Clark approached them because they didn't have a mobile strategy, and he really liked their search capability - users can even input barcode numbers to get a specific search result. So here's a company that didn't have any mobile experience at all, that took some pre-existing web assets, wrapped a mobile user interface around it, alongside some additional mobile-specific features, and suddenly find themselves in the heat of mobile commerce.
 
2.     How important it is to think differently about mobile use-cases. The specific search result was one of several things that Sol Robots thought about in developing Save Benjis. They wanted really specific search because they envisioned enabling people who had already made a product selection decision to simply compare prices on that particular item before they plunked down the money to purchase. They also thought about ease of use - part of the beauty of Save Benjis is the fact that a lot of the data entry-intensive stuff can be stored as user preferences, so email and physical addresses don't have to be entered from the iPhone keyboard (arguably the weakest point of the iPhone user interface). Sol Robots also tried really hard to make use of the iPhone camera to snap a picture of the barcode, but in the end had to abandon it - he said the technology exists to make it all happen, but the iPhone camera wasn't good enough to get consistent results. And they decided that they would rather have a simple, highly reliable user experience, than a bleeding edge experience that didn't always work as expected.
 
3.     How important personalized promotions are about to become to retailers. I asked Clark what advice he had for retailers on how they should react to something like Save Benjis. He envisions a future where his app enables the physical retailer to get in on the product search. If a retailer knows that a consumer has just engaged in a price comparison search in their store (whether through geo-location or through say, the free Wi-Fi access that a retailer provides in-store), Clark sees this as an opening for the retailer to decide whether they want to intervene in the process by offering a discount to that consumer. It doesn't necessarily have to be a price match - stores do have the advantage of instant gratification, and that can definitely be worth something. But with others already in the game, transparency of price at the shelf is already inevitable. For my part, I think this is yet another proof point for the importance of promotion optimization. It's not practical for most retailers to make personalized offers to a customer segment of one individual, but as these types of apps spread, it may rapidly become necessary - because the offer you make will need to depend on so many different factors that it may effectively lead you to a segment of one: where in the buying process, customer lifetime value, recent activity, characteristics of the product itself, and so many other things...

I will readily disclose that my husband is an Apple fan-boy. And with that in mind, I don't want to get too hysterical about the opportunity that iPhone and its open apps have to reshape mobile commerce. But I look at what Sol Robots, this relatively small company, has done - reusing web assets and different bits of pre-developed code (like when they looked at image sharpening algorithms while exploring the barcode picture option), to put together something that has pretty easily made the top 100 list of free apps on the App Store - and I have to say that I don't see evolution in mobile. I see revolution.

Nikki Baird is a Managing Partner at RSR Research , a technology analyst firm specializing in consumer and retailer technology adoption trends.

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