Amazon was granted a U.S. patent late last month for an application described as “Physical Store Online Shopping Control,” which would allow the emerging brick-and-mortar retailer to block customer searches of competitors’ products while using Amazon’s in-store Wi-Fi, Squawker first reported.
The patent lists several actions that could occur when a customer uses Amazon’s in-store Wi-Fi to conduct a search of a competitor’s products and prices via smartphone, including the possibility that “access to competitor information may be blocked,“ “The consumer device may be redirected to other content,“ and the search could trigger an in-store Amazon sales associate to be directed to help the customer.
The patent also suggests the control mechanism might not be deployed in every instance of an in-store search, but could be used depending on the value of the specific customer to Amazon, as well as other variables.
Retail Dive's Consumer Survey recently found that almost 60% of shoppers use their smartphones in-store to research product and pricing information. The types of actions that Amazon could take in leveraging this patent would not affect a small group by any means, but the majority of people shopping in physical stores today.
Still, we should point out that no one is forced to use a free Wi-Fi network in an Amazon-owned brick-and-mortar store simply because it’s there. Smartphone, of course, also connect to non-Wi-Fi networks and mobile service providers would probably love it if consumers used their network more often for internet needs. Shoppers, however, are careful of how often they do so because of the overage charges incurred if they run past their data cap, but Amazon may be looking to capitalize on the notion that many consumers have their phones set up to search for and log on to Wi-Fi networks automatically wherever they go.
If Amazon blocks competitors' product and pricing details from being accessed on its network while customers are in its stores, is that a nefarious and sinister plan? If it is, it's not one we should assume any other retailers wouldn't also try. Retailers have just started getting used to the idea that customers use their smartphones as an in-store shopping accompaniment. They may have not thought thoroughly about all that implies from a competitive point of view, but they will get there sooner or later. Amazon just managed to patent a technology mechanism and process for doing that before anyone else did. Amazon is like that.
However, there is no guarantee Amazon is actually going to put this patent into practical use. Some coverage of this story has pointed out that this could be more of a defensive move on Amazon’s part. We’ll see — Amazon made itself into an empire through innovation, aggressive leveraging of customer insights and a mastering of logistics, but it also has been and continues to be brutally competitive. Some may write this off as another crazy Amazon idea, but we should also remember how many times Amazon did something with its crazy ideas, such as drone delivery, which was initially laughed off.
Amazon, like Apple, Starbucks and a handful of other restaurants and retailers, appears to be making free in-store Wi-Fi a common amenity. But, free isn't always free. Customers who use such networks contribute valuable data, and we shouldn't be surprised by how any retailers leverage a private network that it owns.