Mallen Baker has been down the aisles with his iPhone

Tricky thing technology, if yours is a consumer products company. When people are looking to buy from you, you want to control the conversation that goes on around your product. But that is getting harder and harder to achieve.

For instance, there is now a web browser plug-in called sidewiki that enables customers or critics to post whatever comments they like when at a company’s website, and all other users of sidewiki can read those comments. Go to the Tesco website, for instance, and someone has posted a complaint about “misleading special offers”. Whoops.

But at least that only happens online. It doesn’t actually happen in-store. Or does it?

Lo and behold – at least for US consumers – this technology has arrived in the form of the iPhone app GoodGuide. It scans the barcodes and then rates a range of common products against a set of environmental, health and social criteria. Key information at the point of buying decision. It is clearly the way of the future.

Technology as enabler

There is, however, one problem. The technology is only an enabler, and as always it really depends on who is doing the ranking, and on what basis.

About eight months ago, I checked out this emerging system for the first time and had a look at one sample product: Quaker Oats. It had an overall score of 7.3 out of 10 – a score which has, in the last eight months, dipped very slightly to 7.2.

Why the change? Impossible to tell, since the measures seem to have changed.

Last time, it scored “fair” on its carbon footprint. This time, there is “no data for this product on global warming”. What happened in the meantime? Was it wrong originally, or did the system simply change?

Added to this is the fact that you get single numeric scores that lump together a whole bunch of completely different things. Quaker Oats scores OK on philanthropy, for instance. Is that really as important as nutrition for this product?

So the downfalls are obvious. You have your app with you in the supermarket, but so far its value to you is really restricted by the quality of the data behind it. All such data has a context, and it’s very difficult to put that into a number for consumers.

Impartiality issues

I might look at all the facts for a company’s approach to global warming and give it an eight out of 10. Someone else reviewing identical data might choose to give it a six.

Do the values of the people who created the rating system match your own? Do you trust them to give impartial information, or will they do their best to score down companies they dislike? How do you know?

For many consumers, this is not a big deal. They generally trust the word of people whom they see as socially minded and progressive, and just want that extra bit of intelligence and inside info when they are there, surrounded by a welter of different products.

Maybe this is the product for them.

But what about when this system gets it wrong? Or when one company does great things that don’t show up on the GoodGuide scale?

I would compare the process to that of price comparison websites for financial services. When they first appeared, people thought they were simply a brilliant idea for making it easy to compare lots of different product prices in one easy go.

Follow the money

Now people have started to ask more questions. What commission gets paid by companies on these sites? Are we really comparing like with like? Can a company refuse to be on this site and actually offer better value?

The iPhone app will really punch above its weight if it can make these issues so real and relevant – so convenient and understandable – that it breaks into the mainstream. As it currently stands, it is probably only a tool for the committed eco-shopper.

Although it looks like robust, reliable data, it may simply be the equivalent of sidewiki. In other words it is an avenue for opinionated commentary, albeit with more structure.

But what is clear is that the age when information is present at the point of sale has arrived. For better or worse, that is going to change much.

Mallen Baker is founder of Business Respect.

Related Reads

comments powered by Disqus