People already use their mobile devices for comparative shopping when paying visits to brick-and-mortar retailers – but it’s about to get a lot worse. Amazon has integrated shopping-by-camera functionality into its main iOS application, which is even easier than the previous barcode scanning feature it used to let shoppers compare prices.
The image recognition feature isn’t new: Amazon previously released a standalone app called “Flow” run by its subsidiary A9 (the search and advertising wing of the e-commerce giant), and the new feature within the main app is called “Flow,” too. The standalone app was launched a little over two years ago, so Amazon clearly wanted to make sure the image recognition tech was fully baked before introducing it to the wider user pool of its main iOS application.
Flow’s introduction (and its eventual rollout on Android, too) was preceded by Amazon A9’s acquisition of SnapTell, a startup whose main purpose was to develop visual product search. With SnapTell, you could take a picture of certain specific items (CD, DVD, book or video game covers to be exact) and get price and ratings from not only Amazon, but also Google, eBay and more.
The in-app Flow feature in Amazon’s iOS title is much more flexible – it works by identifying not only media package covers, but also logos, artwork and other unique visual features – and can cover a much broader range of packaged items. You still can’t take a picture of, say, a pair of headphones you have lying around the house out of box, but for showrooming purposes (its main use case) that shouldn’t matter all that much.
The ability to scan barcodes made it much easier for people to comparison shop, but it’s still a degree of complexity that makes it not all that convenient, since barcodes are sometimes difficult to find, and shoppers might not always know where to look for them, or want to bother. With straightforward package trait identification, it’s a simple matter of point-and-shoot, without even having to take an item down from its rack or shelf.
Like a cowbird laying its eggs in the nests of wrens and sparrows, Amazon is using the retail floors of its competitors to demo products, while landing the final sale through competitive pricing. Image recognition definitely makes it an even more effective commerce parasite.