In case you don’t follow Amazon-related news with the angry fervor of a hungry, salivating Pavlov-dog who just heard a bell ring, on December 6, Amazon released an iPhone and Android app called “Price Check.” The app allows Smart Phone users, aka “Smart Phoners” (phrase trademarked by Catie Disabato), to compare the prices of books in bookstores to the prices of books on Amazon. Smart Phoners browse a bookstore, find a book they’d like to buy, and then scan the barcode, or take a picture of the book’s cover, or say the name of the book into the phone’s voice recognition software, or—like a dumb beast—type the title of the book into the search bar (“Scan It, Snap It, Say It or Type It”), and Price Check relays how much less Amazon will sell you the book for. Because Amazon sells books at a loss and bookstores need to make a profit on books to stay in business, Price Check will always tell you that Amazon sells the book for less.
With Price Check, Amazon is essentially encouraging customers to engage in a practice bookstore owners call “showrooming,” browsing bookstores but actually purchasing their books on the web (more on this later). “Encouraging” actually isn’t the right word—“bribing customers” is linguistically more appropriate, because if a Smart Phoner uses Price Check before December 10, they can get 5% off an Amazon purchase of up to $100 (so, $5 off, maximum).
As skullfuckingly terrible as Price Check sounds, I wasn’t planning to write about it until I read this blog post by Jarek Steele, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, called “‘This is the Part Where Amazon Jumps The Shark’ or ‘Go Forth and Destroy Your Community Sayeth Amazon.’” While I agree with the angry feelings Steele had when he wrote his post, I don’t agree with his thesis that Amazon finally went far enough that they will alienate a good portion of their customer base. I wish I agreed with him! His world would be a better world to live in! But, quite the contrary, this is another home run for Amazon’s relationship with their customers.
Two days before Amazon announced the arrival of Price Check, a book market research and consulting company called the Codex Group released the results of a survey on showrooming. They found that 39% of people who bought books from Amazon looked at the book in a bookstore before deciding to purchase it online. 24% of people who bought books online, from any web retailer, checked out the book in a bookstore first. Julie Bosman wrote a great piece about the survey results on New York Times’ Media Decoder blog.
Steele argues in his blog post that Amazon has put their customers to work by creating Price Check, but Amazon just made it easier for people to do what they are already doing. By developing this App, Amazon has actually helped their customers out.
Sure, Amazon is also asking their customers to gather data for them, but they state this plainly on their App Store page: “By sharing prices, this helps ensure our prices remain competitive for our customers.” The best (worst) part is, they aren’t even bullshitting. Amazon wants the Price Check users to collect data that will benefit Amazon, but Amazon will pass on that benefit to their customers by keeping their prices so enticingly low. Amazon benefits, customers benefit. Who can blame the customers? They are getting great customer service and low prices and free shipping and an app to help them do the things they already do. This isn’t Amazon’s jumping the shark moment, it’s another major win.