Doylestown Biz: Amazon’s Price Check App 'Kind of Evil'

The online giant on Saturday will offer consumers discounts in exchange for providing competitors’ prices.

Amazon.com plans to reward shoppers on Saturday for what some Doylestown retailers believe is immoral and predatory behavior designed to put them out of business.

During Saturday's one-day promotion, the online megastore is offering customers up to $5 off on as many as three eligible items if they use its Price Check mobile phone application to relay price information from brick and mortar stores. The information can be sent by scanning barcodes, photographing a product, speaking the product name or sending a text message.

“It’s kind of evil,” said Blair Elliot, owner of . His store sells music, one of several products Amazon is focusing on Saturday. The others are toys, electronics, sporting goods and DVDs.

“It’s definitely immoral and heavy-handed,” Elliot said. “What’s ironic is they claim they want to work with independent businesses, but all they’re really trying to do is put independent businesses under.

“It’s just another thing to have to worry about as a small business.”

Amazon, which did not return calls for comment Thursday, said in a press release and on its website that Price Check is designed to save its customers money.

“Price transparency means that you can save money on the products you want and that’s a great thing for customers,” said Sam Hall, director of Amazon Mobile. “Price Check in-store deals are another incentive to shop smart this holiday season.”

“With every in-store price you share, you help ensure our prices remain competitive for our customers,” the website says on the promotion page.

“It’s predatory really," said Pat Gerney, owner of the . “It sounds like they’re out to squash all of the small businesses.

“It’s just another way we have a real battle to stay alive, all independents, not just bookstores,” she said.

Ellen Mager, owner of the children’s bookstore, , isn’t planning to let anyone send information to Amazon from her store.

“It’s disgraceful, and if anybody comes into my store and tries to do it, they’re getting bounced,” she said. She added that she would first ask people to stop and then request they leave if they do not comply.

Mager said it would be a slap in the face if a customer tried using Price Check to send information to Amazon. That’s "paying somebody to hurt somebody else,” she said.

As a preemptive strike, Mager said she also plans to put a sign on her front door saying, “Due to past incidents, this is a no cell phone zone.”

Gerney said she also would ask people to stop, if she saw them using the application, but Elliot said he would rely on his customers to do the right thing.

“People have to police themselves and be aware of the greater implications, and the implication here is they’re almost trying to put a business like this under with what they’re doing,” he said.

Lee Rutherford, owner with his brother Bruce of , wondered whether the practice was legal and called it an invasion of privacy. “That’s kind of like sending out the spies,” he said.

He said he didn’t think any of his customers would be so brazen.

Marianne Coia, owner of , feels much the same way about her customers. “It would be weird for them,” she said. “A lot of my customers are real local. They really value shopping locally.”

Coia said she expected customers in big box stores might take part.

While information about Coia’s merchandise, candy, nuts and gift baskets, isn’t what Amazon is after – at least not so far – intelligence on what Nerice Kendter sells is.

The owner of said she finds it offensive that a company of Amazon’s size would use customers to conduct market research.

“Companies like Amazon have the bank account that no small business will ever have for their marketing and advertising,” she said. “Amazon can afford to pay a marketing employee.”

According to Hall, Amazon “scours” online and in-store advertisements from other retailers all year round. “Now,” he added, “we are enabling customers to use the Price Check app to share in-store prices while they search for the best deals. This is a powerful opportunity for customers to get involved and ensures Amazon customers get the best possible prices.”

With more consumers buying online both on their computers and on their mobile phones, Kendter said she realizes online shopping is here to stay. She adds, however, that people need to understand the importance of small businesses, especially in communities like Doylestown.

“If the brick and mortars in the community were to close because of online retailers, the feel of the communities in this area and across the country would be forever altered,” she said. “A vibrant community has a mix of retail and service businesses.”

Each of the merchants, including Kendter, say their customers value shopping locally as a way to get great customer service and support their community.

However, Mager said some people seek out her expertise and then want to order the books she has recommended online.

Customers, Kendter said, have a desire for “top-notch service with all the bells and whistles at an Amazon price. That’s where the disconnect is. You cannot have all that wrapped up in one.”

David Pajer December 09, 2011 at 04:34 PM
Maybe the locals & small business owners across this nation should give Amazon a taste of their own medicine and send in ridiculously low prices that would under-cut their ability to make a profit.
Bill December 09, 2011 at 08:07 PM
Right at the bottom of every page on the amazon.com website is a link for small businesses to list products. Maybe locals and small business owners should embrace the current online marketplace. It's not going away. If you look at the website of one of the complaining businesses(Booktender's Secret Garden,) you'll find a poorly designed, incomplete and unattractive website. In this day and age, there is no excuse for that. Clearly that owner fails at reaching customers. Don't blame amazon.com. Compete, don't complain.
Pat Achilles December 09, 2011 at 11:24 PM
I'm for the local small businesses and don't blame them a bit for demanding no cell phone use in their stores - Amazon should be ashamed of this unethical practice. I hope Amazon gets sent a lot of photos of smiling customers making purchases in their favorite brick & mortar store.
Jeff Lugar December 09, 2011 at 11:25 PM
This promotion is just the one day, so it's not going to kill a business. Anyone who's afraid of people coming into their store and doing comparison shopping on price shouldn't be in business, and that's ultimately what the app does. It doesn't make them jerks just because they're comparing you to 'big bad' Amazon. Think about it—they've at least walked into your store instead of just going online to begin with. That's your chance to strike with personal, warm service that'll make them forget about a couple dollars price difference. And I hate to break it to business owners, but anyone with a smartphone has been able to stand in your aisles and search for your products over Google or on Amazon's mobile site to compare prices for years now; it's just not that big a deal that they've made an app to make it a few seconds quicker. And I'll back up what Bill says about the Booktenders website; it's actually so bad as to arguably be worse than no website at all.
Mary Ellen Currie December 10, 2011 at 01:50 AM
Ok, let's really talk about what is happening here. Booktenders doesn't need to improve their website. They aren't selling on line, they are selling in person. If you want to go to a physical store, chat with the shop owner about books, browse a few volumes, you ought to understand that you are enjoying an experience and interaction you can't get on line. Have you ever had a conversation about books with Jeff Bezos? If there is value in that experience for you as a consumer, you need to pay for it. If you prefer shopping on line, shop on line. There are plenty of tools to help you get to the right price without pestering or embarrassing store owners who I am pretty sure are paying a higher price for their inventory than Amazon. Besides if you choose to participate, Amazon is buying your time pretty cheaply with a $5 coupon. Maybe you should just read a good book instead.
Jeff Lugar December 10, 2011 at 12:32 PM
Every business needs a competent, nice-looking website as a matter of course; it's often how they make their first impression. It has nothing to do with selling online; they're still competing against other traditional storefronts. If I Google "Doylestown book shops" I find links to nice websites for Doylestown Bookshop (who has an amazing website) and Central Books, but no link to Booktenders (a site does exist, but is apparently just a graphic with no hidden data to capture generic search requests). If I'm new to town/don't buy many books and searching at home, or a visitor shopping in town and using a smartphone, as far as I'm concerned her store doesn't exist. That's why every business needs a website. I agree with you that the chatting with an owner or browsing merchandise is a valuable experience, but if I don't know a business exists to begin with, that's a potential customer lost by that owner.
Janine Penfield December 10, 2011 at 03:12 PM
One thing to keep in mind when buying from an online retailer rather than a local business is how much does that online retailer contribute toward taxes in YOUR COMMUNITY? How much do they contribute to the life of your community? You can save boatloads of money but live with a shuttered downtown, no services and your neighbors out of work. If that's a place where you envision living, then give Jeff Bezos all your money right now.
Danielle D December 10, 2011 at 08:38 PM
It is not new knowledge to consumers that products are priced lower on websites, such as Amazon. A person chooses to shop locally not because they believe they are paying lower prices, but for the convenience of not having to wait for product delivery. This app is not going to completely alter a consumer's preference to shopping locally versus through Amazon's online marketplace. Additionally, as local businesses must compete with Amazon, the company must also compete with local businesses to provide incentive for consumers to use the website. Quite frankly, it would be a much bigger blow to the economy if Amazon were to close its doors opposed to a local business shutting down. Big businesses help control prices; they offer an alternative for those who cannot afford to pay the "premium" of shopping locally. Also, the amount of jobs that big businesses offer far outweigh the four person staffs at local stores.
TomInPA December 12, 2011 at 02:25 PM
As a business owner, I find it disappointing that some people find nothing wrong with this concept. How would you like to have a bunch of spies invade your private business that you spent your lifetime building, risked your home as collateral, endured thick and thin to provide value to your customers and jobs for your employees. Not to mention that this concept may well violate Sherman Anti-Trust laws. Why not reverse the role and make the spies show the best price they got online and cut a few pennies off. I bet the penny pinching spies would jump all over that offer because they are that cheap. For Jeff and Bill, check out how much it costs to advertise on Amazon. I have and by the time you're done there is almost no profit left. Ebay is almost as bad. We sell an item online for $399. Ebay gets $26.97, PayPal which is the credit card processor that Ebay owns gets $11.57. We have to absorb the shipping and insurance in order to compete and that usually runs about $15 so we net about $13.54 on a $399 sale. On Amazon we would make less than $10. The rent here is $1,800 per month, medical benefits, insurance, utilities, salaries, freight, computer expenses, internet fees, interest, and the list goes on and on. We have to make a gross profit of $25,000 per month just to keep the doors open so don't tell me how to compete. If you think it's so easy, try it sometime.
Tedsan December 12, 2011 at 02:46 PM
Unfortunately, this is inevitable. Consumers are addicted to getting deals, and who can blame them? With record unemployment, everybody is trying to save money, and shopping on Amazon is convenient and generally inexpensive - it's the next step beyond Wal-Mart. We all love our small towns and local retailers and want to support them, but the reality is, you can go on-line, generally get a better selection, read user reviews and buy at a low price in just a click. With commodity items like books and cameras, there's little incentive to buy local other than the desire to support a local business, and unfortunately, most people are not willing or able to be so philanthropic. TomInPA - it's not that we want to lose our local businesses, the problem is, the number of us willing to pay a premium to support local business is dwindling. The momentum is just too great. Just as the automobile displaced the horse and buggy, even though autos are noisy and polluting, the _perceived_ advantages are just too great for the masses to resist.
Tedsan December 12, 2011 at 02:57 PM
By the way - I should add, I just spent the last year, and considerable money, working to create an internet company specifically for the purpose of helping local businesses by bringing attention to their positive qualities. We're still in the process of developing this but unfortunately may scrap it because the only people who like our idea are local business owners. Everybody else just want to use Yelp, Groupon and Amazon.
TomInPA December 12, 2011 at 03:15 PM
You miss the point, Ted. I'm not at all suggesting or asking for handouts or sympathy. I feel very strongly that it is just plain wrong and possibly illegal for any company to send out spies to invade their competitors for the sole purpose of ruining their businesses. It's totally unethical to then reward the spies with incentives for doing so. It is a direct violation of long accepted federal trade laws. These laws were put in place to insure competition, not to end it - and that is what Amazon is trying to do.
Andy Ritting December 12, 2011 at 04:28 PM
The no cell phone policy would keep me away or just make me feel uncomfortable in your store. I hope the Doylestown shop owners can find a more fun way to compete for the attention of amazon customers.
Mike December 12, 2011 at 05:25 PM
I buy off of Amazon. I buy off of Barnes & Noble. I also buy from Doylestown Books (both online and off), take books out of the local library...and I absolutely buy my kids' books from Booktenders. I couldn't tell you whether Booktenders even has a web site; doesn't matter. What matters to me is the value I get from Ellen's insane knowledge of her industry and her customer. Local businesses survive (and thrive) because they give their local customers something they can't get from a national retailer. Sometimes that something is product, sometimes it is ambiance, sometimes it is uniqueness. My job as a consumer is to get the best perceived value for my money; the job of the business (local or national) is to get the most profit out of me as possible. Profit happens when the value you bring to the customer exceeds the cost of doing business. The debate here should be less about costs and more about value.
Thomas December 21, 2011 at 08:21 AM
"Amazon is not so Amaz-ing. Small businesses are important to us #occupyamazon #10bucksoff".


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