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AisleBuyer: Augmenting the real-world retail experience with an iPhone app

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 17, 2010 08:00 AM

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aislebuyer.jpgMost of us have had a chance to use self-checkout systems at stores like Home Depot, Shaw's, and CVS by now. At some places, they're popular enough that there's no difference between the length of the cashier's queue and the self-checkout queue.

But what if you could scan items in the store as you put them into your shopping cart, using your iPhone, and pay with a credit card — without waiting in line? That's the idea behind the new app from Boston-based AisleBuyer, which showed up on the iTunes Store over the weekend. The free AisleBuyer app also lets you read product descriptions and reviews on your iPhone. The company calls it the "world's first mobile checkout system," and I had a chance to try it out yesterday morning at Magic Beans, a Brookline store that is the company's first retail partner. (Magic Beans sells toys and baby accoutrements like crib bumpers and $600 strollers; they operate four stores around the Boston area.)

I downloaded the app in a few seconds as I was walking to the store. Interestingly, it's branded as a "Magic Beans" app, not an AisleBuyer app (the company says that once it has a half-dozen or so retailers using the app, it'll create a "meta" AisleBuyer app that lets you select the store you happen to be in.)

The app can help you locate a store using your iPhone's GPS, or give you information about current deals. But the main function once you are in the store is the ability to use the phone's camera to scan the bar codes on items. I tried seven items, and most scanned within a few seconds. One item (some bubble bath) didn't seem to scan, and a few others had price tags stuck over the bar codes.

Ideally, after scanning, the AisleBuyer app will be able to pull up product descriptions, a star rating, and some buyer reviews for items. At Magic Beans right now, only some items (mostly those also offered on the store's Web site) present the star rating from previous buyers. With those items, you can also click to see a product description — though the interface doesn't make it obvious that you can do that. And while the app will tell you how many buyer reviews exist for a given item, you can't actually read them. Aislebuyer's CEO, Andrew Paradise, explained that the company was rushing to get the app out, and will remedy those problems in future releases. (He also says you'll soon be able to store items that you don't want to purchase now, but may want to pick up on a later visit.)

aislebuyer2.jpgOnce you've decided to purchase an item, you can add it to the virtual shopping cart on your phone. It keeps a running tally of how much you're about to spend, including tax. The first time you click the "Checkout" button, you have to enter your credit card info and billing address to set up an account. It took me about two minutes to peck in my data. (I bought a $4.99 spray bottle of scented hand sanitizer.) Once the purchase was complete, it turned into a digital "receipt" on the phone, with a verification code that you are supposed to show to a store clerk before you leave. Even if there's a long line at the register, Magic Beans founder Sheri Gurock explains that a clerk will happily hand you a bag and send you on your way.

Magic Beans isn't yet offering any discounts or coupons through AisleBuyer, but Gurock said she will likely experiment with that soon; AisleBuyer will allow her to create special offers that will pop up on the iPhone screens of people who've downloaded the app, encouraging them to come into the store.

My verdict on version 1.0 of the app: it doesn't (yet) consistently provide you with detailed information or useful reviews of a product when you might be on the fence about buying it, but it could very well help you avoid a long line at the cash register. (Gurock says Magic Beans' busiest time is Saturday mornings, when parents stop in to purchase last-minute gifts before heading off to birthday parties.)

AisleBuyer is aligning itself with brick-and-mortar retailers in an interesting little app-skirmish. One one side are apps like ShopSavvy, RedLaser, and Pic2Shop. They make it possible to compare in-store prices to those at online merchants (which, you may have noticed, are sometimes lower, even when shipping costs are taken into account.) And their pitch seems to be, "Go check out the product at BestBuy, but purchase it wherever it's cheapest."

But AisleBuyer is positioning itself as an ally of the real-world merchant — a way for them to encourage shoppers to use apps to provide a layer of additional info (as long as you don't want to hunt for lower prices), and a convenient self-checkout option.

That could be a tough sell, given that the most tech-savvy consumers (those most likely to have an iPhone and regularly add apps to it) are information omnivores, wanting to know everything about a product they're evaluating (including critical reviews that haven't been "blessed" by the merchant) and all of the purchase options.

Magic Beans plans to begin promoting the AisleBuyer app in its stores this Thursday (though you can download it and use it now.)

With 13 employees, AisleBuyer is moving into new office space in Kendall Square later this month. The start-up has raised some angel funding (individual investors include Gerald Kraft and Phil Cooper, both formerly of Charles River Associates), and plans to announce a Series A funding round in September. The company is currently a finalist in the MassChallenge competition as well as the PepsiCo10 start-up contest. Paradise didn't want to be specific about other retailers who may deploy AisleBuyer, but he did say that office supply superstores are a high priority for the company. An Android version of the app is in development.

(In the photo above, from left to right, are Andrew Paradise of AisleBuyer, Sheri Gurock of Magic Beans, and Chuck Ball of AisleBuyer.)

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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