A Scan-Tastic App Goes Mainstream

Where barcode scanning fits in a small-business sales strategy
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This story appears in the May 2010 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
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Taking a photo of the barcode on a product sitting on a store shelf may still draw stares from fellow shoppers. However, as more barcode-scanning applications become available on more mobile phones, barcode-savvy buying may become the norm.

That's what app developers Big in Japan, 3GVision, Autoniq and others are banking on. These players connected the dots between much-improved camera phone resolution and smartphone Internet access capabilities to create apps that read barcode photos or product IDs to unlock a wealth of Internet-based price comparisons, product reviews and other info that can be helpful to shoppers.

Big in Japan's ShopSavvy allows users to scan a product barcode to access an organized shopping experience featuring 20 million products from 20,000 retailers who have loaded in their barcodes, says Alexander Muse, the Dallas-based entrepreneur who co-founded the company.

"For buyers, it gives you access to more information that removes the shopping inertia," Muse says. ShopSavvy had 4.5 million users scanning an average of 26 barcodes a month on their Android phones as of late January. The company has an iPhone version and is preparing versions for other devices. It's also working to add social media features to help users shop for their friends and management features to help retailers target offer discounts triggered via the app.

Big in Japan's big break was winning the Google Android Developers Challenge in 2008. Since then, riffs on the concept have emerged, such as Autoniq's VIN Scanner, which lets iPhone and Android users scan a vehicle identification number for information on a car they're looking to buy.

Small businesses may see barcode-scanning applications as one more management headache, but Muse says little-guy shops are viable users, too. One of ShopSavvy's busiest retailers is an independent DVD trader, he says. By putting their products on the app, small businesses are noticed right along with larger retailers, and Big in Japan can manage the loading process for them if they lack resources.

Unfortunately, the ShopSavvy e-commerce tour ends when you have to jump off the app and get in the checkout line. Muse is working on that: PayPal transactions will be available by May.

Online shopping has become big business, and barcode scanning may be brick-and mortar's best bet for matching the context and info of shopping online. If you can make it that easy on consumers, "just looking" turns into actual buying in no time.

Edition: July 2017

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