Amazon wins patent to stop consumers showrooming

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Amazon have filed a patent to spy on you while you’re shopping. The proposition is that if you are in a physical store and the retailer provides free WiFi to you, that they can then examine the content you attempt to access and if you’re doing a price comparison they can block the URL and trigger an action.

The mechanism described in the patent could simply block the information you requested, or it could be much more complex and, whilst interesting, scary! Imagine having a sales assistant tap you on the shoulder and say “I see you want to check prices, can I help you?” and then try to convince you to buy on the spot. Slightly less sinister might be to pop a voucher with a discount for the product you were researching but either way it’s highly intrusive, although you can see why a retailer might find it attractive. It’s also possible that they’d redirect you to their own website showing their own product rather than allow you to see a competitor site.

Price comparisons have been made incredibly easy with technology, just about every product has a bar code which represents a GTIN. A quick scan into your favourite marketplace, shopping comparison site or retailer website and you’ll instantly see if the price in the shop is as keen as if you made an online purchase and waited for the product to be delivered. It’s so common that the practice even has a name – ‘showrooming’.

We know that Amazon have the patent. We don’t know what Amazon might want to use it for. With their nascent interest in physical book shops and Amazon Go grocery stores, it may be that they simply want to stop price comparisons in their own shops. Alternatively they could have filed the patent to prevent other retailers stopping consumers from price checking on Amazon which is currently a much more realistic explanation.

The patent which was granted at the end of May was first filed in 2012 before Amazon started opening physical stores. Amazon have a reputation for playing a long game so they may not have been considering opening stores at the time it was submitted which suggests that the company are more interested in making sure other retailers can’t block you price checking on Amazon rather than for their own use.

There is of course one sure fire way to avoid practises such as are described in the patent and that’s simply to use your 4G connection rather than connect to a retailers WiFi. That’s not always possible if you’re buried in the depths of a store without a mobile phone signal (you’ll be lucky to get 4G half the time!) but perhaps when 5G eventually starts to be rolled out that problem will go away.

4 Responses

  1. Extraodinary. This really reduces my already-negligible confidence in ‘business method’ patents… This is a standard technical ability – to sniff web traffic and interrupt/divert/respond… But now it’s an “invention” and a “patent”. While I admire Amazon’s hutzpah in patenting every obvious thing (oneclick, anyone? Amazon Air/Breathing?) I have to wonder that these pass unchallenged in terms of prior art, extant practice or existing capability.
    The lesson for the rest of the world is that there’s no point whining in 5 years time if you were asleep at the wheel. I’m challenging myself to think if this was obvious 5 years ago (yes), technically possible (yes), in actual use (yes)… but did I apply for a patent? nope. #endofstory.
    Moral of the tale? Marry a patent agent and patent everything you can think of.
    ps Patent 101 – typing comments into a text box online in response to published web articles… I’ll call it CommentBox[tm]

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