Remember Pets.com? Of course you do- it’s the Keyser Soze of the startup world. It’s the story that venture capitalists tell their children to scare them toward the straight and narrow. “Don’t invest into a product that makes no sense just because it seems like the new thing – you’ll lose everything!” And then the kids grow up to invest only in low-risk, low-reward companies and long-term IRAs.
Of course not – they wouldn’t be venture capitalists if they didn’t take risks. Trying to get to the next big thing is what they do. But that doesn’t mean that the legacy of Pets.com and the whole burst bubble at millenium’s end doesn’t loom over nearly everything. And for a while, that was a problem, as people were worried about other bubbles and not terribly trusting of websites on which you shopped, save for the planet-swallowing behemoths like eBay and Amazon.
That’s all changed with the rise of mobile tech personalized shopping. The fear that still lingered at the start of this decade, enhanced by the economic collapse, has dissipated. Smart companies and investors have recognized that everything has changed, and won’t be going back to the way it was. This is particularly true in the realm of shopping. Mobile tech personalized shopping is here. Smart phones have completely altered the way we interact with purchases, almost without our realizing.
Why Focus on Shopping?
It seems sort of shallow to be thinking so much about shopping, but that’s silly. We can talk about shopping without emphasizing conspicuous consumption, or buying something just for the sake of buying. Everything you’re looking at right now was purchased by someone. Even just the raw materials, unless you’re sitting in a log cabin using a computer that you’ve made yourself.
And shopping – or, engaging in capitalism, if you aren’t a fan of the term – is crucial to understanding the mobile and broader technological revolution. It is something so fundamental that seemed so solid and set for a century, or at least since the rise of the first Piggly-Wiggly or A&P. The biggest advance before the internet was probably barcodes, and unless you remember well the 1970s, those probably seem like they’ve always been there. And it is because the subject seems so banal that the idea of incredible change is even more important and breathtaking.
One of the first changes is something we had touched briefly upon in a previous article about geolocation– stores being able to track you when you enter a specific location (near their stores) to offer you goods and discounts, in order to entice you to buy something you may otherwise not have. For a while, so-called geofences were very broad, but they are much more targeted now.
These targets will get even more accurate with the use of Beacons and iBeacons. Beacons are (simplifying) devices that can attach to a wall and ramp up signal inside, focusing on your phone in places where they don’t normally work as well. There are a lot of applications for this, but when it comes to shopping, a store can broadcast a message to you as you near the pants department, letting you know that, hey: we’ve got some great pants for sale. And frankly, you could use some new pants – no, you deserve them. This will make shopping a much more personal experience. Combine that with vast improvement in the Internet of Things, and a store can know just when you need something, being able to triangulate with your toaster that you are out of bread just as you are nearing the bakery section. A later article will delve into whether this is invasive or convenient, or if it is divisive or merely personal, but it is impossible to say it isn’t going to change the way we shop.
But what if you don’t go to the store?
What if, rather, the store comes to you? Services like PeaPod, which delivers groceries to your door, have been around for a long time. I remember my mom using it via the phone – one connected to a wall. That seems insane now, a weird parable like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it happened. These grocery-delivery services have adapted to the modern age, as you can order online or from your mobile device, but they are fundamentally the same. Startups like Instacart, which can pair with grocers, offer same-day delivery, but it is still up in the air as to whether they can be profitable and effective.
So that is a seemingly stagnant market, but it is due to be revolutionized. One reason people go to stores is because they are reminded of what they need if they forgot to write it down. You’ll be going down the spice aisle and suddenly remember: Oh! You’re out of turmeric. Otherwise you might have forgotten it, and then where would you be? Nowhere that I would join you, that’s for sure. But suppose your spice rack lets you know you are running low, or that you are going to need more strawberries soon, or your shoes can let your shopping list know that their soles are beginning to wear thin. The choice to buy is still yours, but the chance to forget has diminished.
Merge of the Titans
Of course, there aren’t going to be many changes made that the big players don’t adapt to. Recently, Amazon and Twitter announced that they will be partnering on a service that allows you to tweet a purchase. This would seem to answer some of Twitter’s critics about how it is losing relevance and needs to find a focus. That’s either cool or terrifying (do people really need a shortcut to impulse buying?), but it opens up a new world. This kind of partnership can trickle down, letting you use new social media tools to get mobile tech personalized buying with minimum of hassle.
There are a number of markers that people use when deciding if we are in a new era. The common one is “flying cars” or something absurd and probably too dangerous to every make sense. That’s normal; as humans, we focus on milestones. But I don’t know if that is what we should look at to measure progress. Keeping someone alive to 120 is amazing; raising life expectancy to 80 around the globe is far more impressive. It is what impacts the lives of everyone that matters. And something like shopping, getting some eggs when we need them, is something we take for granted. Soon, the way we operate now will look archaic and bizarre, almost without our noticing. That, to me, is how we measure the mobile and technological revolution. I’m not sure I need my phone to make a purchase but it does save time to have mobile tech personalized choices.