Amazon was granted a patent May 30 that could help it choke off a common problem faced by many physical stores: Customers’ use of smartphones to compare prices even as they walk around a shop. The phenomenon, usually known as mobile “window shopping,” has contributed to a worrisome drop in sales for traditional retailers.
But Amazon now has the technology to counter that type of behavior when customers enter any of its physical stores and connect to the WiFi networks there. Titled “Physical Store Online Shopping Control,” Amazon’s patent illustrates a system that can identify a customer’s Internet traffic and sense when the smartphone user is trying to access a competitor’s website.
“As Amazon increasingly bridges the online-physical divide, regulators should be on the lookout for potentially anti-competitive behavior”, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
“Amazon knows younger consumers increasingly want home delivery of grocery products and online ordering. But there are large privacy issues,” he said. “Amazon has created a large Stealth Big Data digital apparatus that has not gotten the scrutiny it requires.”
Just as a company wins a patent doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll use it. Sometimes companies file for patents to guarantee they have the option to put the idea into usage later, or to keep other companies from implementing the concept. So, a system such as the kind Amazon’s envisioning might never be released. And even if it is, chances are shoppers could still get around the system by staying off the in-store WiFi.
Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a call for comment.
But the patent takes on even greater importance as Amazon has expanded its brick-and-mortar ambitions. It has started more than a half-dozen physical bookstores, with more on the way. And with the purchase of Whole Foods, Amazon will gain authority over more than 465 physical grocery stores. Which gives Amazon an enormous stake in making sure that its consumers don’t look for better deals right from its own baking aisle.
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