As long as I’m on the topic of societal impacts of search, I wanted to sketch out a scenario for you all, in a similar vein to the one I did recently on the integration of search and television.
This scenario involves several elements already in place – search technologies, mobile phones, and the Universal Product Code system – and some more fanciful, but nevertheless feasible technological and business model innovations.
So let’s set this one in motion and see what happens. Imagine it’s the near future, and you’re in your local grocery store on a mission to pick up dinner for a Saturday night dinner party. Because you’re a Searchblog reader with oodles of disposable income to burn, it’s a Whole Foods store, the aisles dripping organic righteousness and whole grain goodness. You know that dinner for 8 is going to run you at least $200, not counting the wine, but that’s OK, compared to the tab at the local bistro, you’ll be coming out ahead. But you do want to make sure you’re not spending money you don’t have to, especially on the wine.
Now, Whole Foods has quite a wine selection, but the store ain’t known for its discount prices on anything, and when it comes to wine, you’ve always had a sneaking suspicion they’re really sticking it to you. But it’s a convenience buy, you’ve always thought, you’re willing to put up with it for the most part.
As you slip your Naiman Ranch tri-tip into your basket and thank the butcher, you head to the wine aisle. What might go with that grilled tri tip? A nice cabernet, no doubt. Whole Foods’ wine aisle, a testament to hierarchy and peer pressure, places the most expensive bottles on the top, and the cheap juice on the bottom. No self-respecting Whole Foods shopper wants to be seen bending down to check out a bottle of wine. Then again, those bottles staring out at you from eye level are exactly the kind that you suspect Whole Foods marks up with the glee of a five star sommelier.
What to do? Not to worry, you’ve got Google Mobile Shop installed on your phone. You whip out your Treo 950, the one with the infrared UPC reader installed, and you wand it over that bottle of 2001 Clos Du Val now lovingly cradled in your arms. In less than a second a set of options is presented on the phone’s screen. It reads:
2001 Clos Du Val Merlot, Lot 21
Stags Leap District, Napa Valley
Average Retail Price: $38 (click here for more)
Price at your store: $52 (more on this)
Click here for a list of prices at nearby stores
Click here for stores selling similar items
Click here for reviews of 2001 Clos Du Val Merlot
Click here for more on this vendor (Ecological Impact, Vendor Labor Policies…etc.)
You’re pretty sure that Clos Du Val isn’t employing child laborers, and anyway you’re really only interested in price comparisons, and the first screen has confirmed your initial suspicion: Whole Foods is ripping you off.
You click on the “list of prices at nearby stores” and see that the liquor store up the street is selling the same bottle for $39. You click on that store’s link, and then choose the “reserve this item for same day pick up” option. With a satisfied smirk, you replace the bottle on its perch on the top shelf, and head over to compare prices and recipe tips for the $6 boxes of imported pasta. As you leave, the fellow who runs the store’s wine department eyes you warily, then picks up the phone to talk to his manager. “Herb?” he asks. “Did you get my message about banning cel phones in the store?”
Is this scenario possible? For it to happen, a few non-trivial things need to occur. First, the entire UPC system, which I must admit I do not fully grok, must be made open and available as a web service. Second, merchants must be compelled to make their inventory open and available to web services. Third, mobile device makers must install readers in their phones, essentially turning phones into magic gateways between the physical world and the virtual world of web-based information. And fourth, providers like Google must create applications that tie it all together.
I’ll leave the speculation as to whether steps 1 and 2 are possible to those who know better (Ross? VanGorilla?), but I am pretty sure #3 is already happening (right Rael or Russell?). And #4 is a no brainer – it’s square in Google and Yahoo’s mission.
The implications of search breaking out of the PC box and making real time information available at the point of purchase has been discussed in plenty of places, I am sure, and probably with far more prowess than this simple scenario. It has also been the failed business model of several Web 1.0 companies. But somehow, with recent developments in local and mobile search, it seems much, much closer to happening now.
What might be the effects of such a system coming to fruition? For one, markets would have to compete far more on service, convenience, ambiance, and other non-price related factors. And vendors of products that have been made in third world sweatshops, or with factories that overpollute, or that support causes some consumers do not wish to support, would be called out in a far more transparent fashion. Refusal to participate in such a system would mean that vendors or merchants have something to hide, and as such, the system could be a major force for good in the global economy – forcing transparency and accountability into a system that has habitually hidden the process of how products are made, transported, marketed, and sold from the consumer.
I for one very much hope such a system is just around the corner. What do you think?