Tri Tang, a 25-year-old marketer, walked into a Best Buy Co. store in Sunnyvale, Calif., this past weekend and spotted the perfect gift for his girlfriend.
Last year, he might have just dropped the $184.85 Garmin global positioning system into his cart. This time, he took out his Android phone and typed the model number into an app that instantly compared the Best Buy price to those of other retailers. He found that he could get the same item on Amazon.com Inc.’s website for only $106.75, no shipping, no tax.
Mr. Tang bought the Garmin from Amazon right on the spot.
“It’s so useful,” Mr. Tang says of his new shopping companion, a price comparison app called TheFind. He says he relies on it “to make sure I am getting the best price.”
Mr. Tang’s smartphone reckoning represents a revolution in retailing—what Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Chief Executive Mike Duke has dubbed a “new era of price transparency”—and its arrival is threatening to upend the business models of the biggest store chains in America.
Until recently, retailers could reasonably assume that if they just lured shoppers to stores with enticing specials, the customers could be coaxed into buying more profitable stuff, too.
Now, marketers must contend with shoppers who can use their smartphones inside stores to check whether the specials are really so special, and if the rest of the merchandise is reasonably priced.
“The retailer’s advantage has been eroded,” says Greg Girard of consultancy IDC Retail Insights, which recently found that roughly 45% of customers with smartphones had used them to perform due diligence on a store’s prices. “The four walls of the store have become porous.”
Some of the most vulnerable merchants: sellers of branded, big-ticket items like electronics and appliances, which often prompt buyers to comparison shop. Best Buy, the nation’s largest electronics chain, said Tuesday that it may lose market share this year, a downward trend that some analysts are attributing in part to pressure from price comparison apps.
Smartphone fans such as Mr. Tang are still a small subset of shoppers. It remains unclear whether large numbers of Americans will be willing to take the extra time to compare offers with mobile programs. Some consumers may want to deploy the technology only when buying expensive or unusual items.