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Smartphone apps may help retail scanning catch on

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 12, 2012
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In 2003, it seemed like the shopping technology of the future: portable computers that could scan bar codes and let customers ring up purchases as they strolled through supermarket aisles, without having to wait for a cashier to check it all out at the end.

Surely, millions of Americans would soon be shopping that way.

Not quite. Nearly nine years later, the supermarket chain Stop & Shop remains the only major US retailer whose customers can use the hand-held scanners, which were designed by Modiv Media Inc. But the Quincy company says the surging popularity of smartphones could now make the concept more practical for retailers.

About one in three Americans owns a smartphone, according to the market research firm comScore Inc. So retailers need not buy expensive hand-held scanners; they can ask customers to install an app on their digital devices.

“Your shoppers, in effect, are paying the cost of the hand-helds,’’ said John Caron, Modiv’s senior vice president of marketing.

Modiv has converted its system to apps that let customers scan bar codes with their smartphones.

A Boston-based rival, AisleBuyer LLC, offers a similar technology that is being used by the toy retailer Magic Beans.

And Apple Inc. offers an app that lets shoppers at its retail stores scan and buy products with their iPhones.

“I think that the concept of scanning while you shop will de facto become reality everywhere’’ as more apps become available, said John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia.

Such apps could not only ring up purchases but deliver discount coupons, display shopping lists, and let users tell friends what foods they are buying.

Since 2003, the Dutch supermarket giant Ahold has installed Modiv Media’s scan-it-yourself technology in about 350 of its Stop & Shop and Giant stores in the United States. Many consumers have embraced the system; Stop & Shop spokeswoman Suzi Robinson said the service handles about one million transactions per month.

Most other supermarket chains have balked at the price, however, since each hand-held scanner can cost up to $600.

“It can easily be $60,000 to $80,000 per store,’’ Caron said. That’s why the apps are generating interest; smartphones reduces the cost to the retailer by about 90 percent, he said.

Modiv Media has introduced smartphone scanning at about 50 Stop and Shop stores. The company’s Scan It! Mobile app is free and available for Apple Inc. iPhones and for smartphones that use Google Inc.’s Android software.

Robinson would not say how many Stop & Shop customers use their phones. But Caron said the app-based system has attracted a lot of interest from supermarkets that declined to purchase scanners. He said a second grocery chain, which he would not identify, is testing the system. “We expect to have two or three more in the next twelve months,’’ Caron said.

The Modiv Media system differs from AisleBuyer; Modiv requires the user to pay for purchases at a checkout counter, while AisleBuyer handles the entire transaction through the phone, including payment.

“It was founded to do mobile self-checkout,’’ said Andrew Paradise, AisleBuyer’s chief executive. AisleBuyer also lets users look up detailed product information and reviews.

Brookline-based Magic Beans has used AisleBuyer since mid-2010.

“We’ve always been geeks,’’ said cofounder Sheri Gurock. “We were definitely drawn to the idea of using our phones this way.’’

Customers who use the app spend more, on average, than those who pay at the register, Gurock said.

Big Y Foods Inc., a chain based in Springfield, made headlines last year when it shut down its self-checkout lanes, another advanced shopping technology designed for customer convenience. Spokeswoman Claire D’Amour-Daley said the lanes prevented employees from interacting with customers.

“We feel that relationship is important,’’ she said, “and it’s hard to build that relationship when you’re working with a terminal and not a person.’’

Big Y is experimenting with AisleBuyer, though. For now, the Big Y app will let customers find coupons and make shopping lists but will not include self-checkout. That could change. “We continue to look at everything,’’ D’Amour-Daley said.

Nobody expects smartphone scanning to catch on overnight. It requires a significant investment in software and computer networking, and many retailers are hanging back to see whether rivals deploy the technology.

“Everybody wants to be second,’’ Paradise said, “and nobody wants to be first.’’

But companies like Stop & Shop and Magic Beans that have taken the leap seem satisfied.

“It’s an idea that’s still a little bit ahead of its time,’’ Gurock said, but “much less than it was 18 months ago.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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