Selling Me Softly

27 03 2011

Imagine a world in which everyone is a salesperson, whether they realize it or not. Everything you own, drive or wear is for sale, and you are the spokesperson. There might not be any price tags or cash registers, but you are an ipso facto agent for the manufacturers and vendors of all that you possess.

And in this world, ever one of us is also a customer, armed with the ability to scrutinize our peers, even total strangers, taking our fashion cues and then buying as we see fit.

Making all of this happen is an electronic device equipped with an RFID (Radio Frequency ID) reader, along with each and every product having a miniature RFID tag embedded within. We send. We read. We scan. We buy. Silent Commerce.

“All the world’s indeed a stage and we are merely players, performers and portrayers” (Limelight, by Rush). Sound scary? Think it could happen? Apparently Accenture does, too, except that they postulated this Real-World Showroom quite a few years ago. The showroom is wherever we are.

The now-laughable part of the equation is that Accenture envisioned this all taking place with…wait for it…PDAs. You know…Palm Pilots. That’s so early-21C.

Of course, we’ve all pushed our PDAs to the back of the center drawer, and have replaced them with smartphones. And while Accenture’s dream sequence never quite materialized the way they saw it, I think their idea is actually still very much alive and well. The only difference is that I have no doubt there will soon be an RFID app for our iPhones and Androids, or, better yet, a camera app that is able to identify products with razor-sharp precision, then whisk us off to a mobile commerce site to contemplate the purchase.

Wait…this is beginning to sound like Google Goggles, except that it hasn’t been fully developed to handle such a high level of commerce. Goggles is a huge leap forward, but it stumbles when it comes time to actually make the sale.

Which is to say that Accenture was actually very prescient in their vision of a store without walls. They just didn’t get the technology completely right, mostly because we were still using 10-key cell phones back then.

If I had my druthers, I would opt for this to all happen without RFID, and just improved visual apps. But given the similarity of so many items, it may be impossible to differentiate between items. For example, my Google Goggles test this morning with a bottle of Jones Cream Soda returned both the Jones site and also images of stop signs (because that’s the photo on the soda bottle label). Close, but no cigar. I really don’t want to buy a stop sign.

RFID, of course, carries with it far darker prospects, because each tag is really a transmitter. And RFID readers could be deployed in a multitude of situations to scan our persons, our homes, our cars. That’s a little spooky, but I will not be the least bit surprised if, in this decade, every consumer item comes with an RFID chip. Drivers licenses and passports already do, and you didn’t even notice.

Let us not forget also that, whether with a better Goggles or with RFID, we will all become transparent. There would be no hiding your cheap underwear, private label jeans, or, conversely, the $480 jeans you sneaked out to buy at Neiman Marcus. Spouses can check up on one another. And social interactions will produce a fear factor for everyone, knowing that we have no secrets.

While we have always been billboards for the brands we love, the prospect of being scanned by anyone and everyone means that we will have eliminated the time lag between product discovery and product purchase. Like my shirt? Buy it. Now. This is a potential gold mine for every manufacturer and retailer. Websites and BAM stores will be old hat. Because the Mall of Earth never closes.

I just hope that Accenture also considered how to pay us for all of the referrals. Because as it stands, we are all working way too cheaply.

Dr “Where’d You Get Those Shoes?” Gerlich


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