February 10, 2014

Amazon’s showrooming app is more obnoxious than ever. Let’s troll it.


Behold the cover of our next Edith Wharton reprint.

Behold the cover of our next Edith Wharton reprint.

Amazon has added photo recognition to its mobile app, meaning that now the software can spot and search Amazon for any products within sight of your camera. It’s a dangerous new tool in Amazon’s efforts to use the world as its showroom. It’s also a good opportunity for us to mess with them.

As reported by Harry McCracken for Time’s tech blog last week, everyone’s favorite online store for suppositories and labor exploitation has added a new feature to their existing app which they call Flow.

[I]t’s a spruced-up take on a search tool the iPhone app previously had, Snap It. That version was designed only for books, CDs, DVDs and video games, and it made you press an on-screen shutter button and then a “Use Photo” button. Flow recognizes far more stuff, and it does it on the fly: The moment it thinks it’s figured out what something is, it shows it to you, and you can go on pointing it at additional products if you choose.

McCracken was given early access to the new tool and tested it out around his office. He reports that it works “pretty well,” that “Flow’s technology is hunting for recognizable logos, and when it got confused, it usually got the company right, but not the product.”

Even McCracken recognizes one of the central intended uses of this tool: showrooming. Showrooming is the practice of browsing a brick and mortar store—perhaps an independent bookstore run by a friendly older woman who reminds you of your Nana—and then buying those products somewhere online instead of from your sweet and hungry Nana. Showrooming is akin to stealing from your Nana and giving to Jeff Bezos and his drone swarms. At this point in Amazon’s trajectory, their support of showrooming is leveled more at big box chainsBest Buy, Walmart, Target—than it is at indies, but they’ve always welcomed collateral damage to friendly old ladies with sad smiles.

The new showrooming tech is undeniably cool. There’s no arguing with that. Other cool things: fireballs, pit vipers, cannibal hordes riding mammoths. And yet, some people might be surprised to learn, none of these inarguably cool things have a place in indie bookstores.

Amazon has often touted this aggressive use of their app, and reactions to the clear injustice of it have helped harden stances in support of indies and against the practice, and Amazon generally. We wrote late last year about a new technology that is already being rolled out to help retailers combat showrooming, but, to co-opt the famous William Gibson line, that tech is already here, it is just not very evenly distributed. Only those least deserving of it—Apple, for one—are already exploring it.

Amazon’s new Flow tool will, if it becomes more polished, allow swifter and more subtle showrooming. There’s the really egregious part. In the past the app and its various clones required browsers to photograph the barcode of a book. Indie booksellers noting a customer/sociopath doing this could then crumble them into piles of fine ash with the heat of their rageful stares. Shame is on their side. Now, with the app presumably needing little more than a photo of the jacket, taken on the fly, there is only guilt to stop showroomers.

Well, there is guilt, but there’s also us. Which is why I’m proud to announce that henceforth we’ll be changing the titles and cover art of all forthcoming books we have planned for the Summer catalog at Melville House. Because when people scan our jackets with the Amazon showrooming app, we want them to find exactly what they deserve. Among other new classics, I hope you’ll look forward to our:

  • The Right Enema Bag- Open fountain top for easy cleaning & Hygiene (2 quart) – no leaky adapters OR bottle converters by  Lars Iyer. Hardcover, $23.95, on sale Sep. 4. It’ll have you rolling on the floor with laughter!
  • PaddleDaddy Unbreakable Spanking Paddle by H. G. Wells. Paperback, $11.00, on sale Aug. 2nd. You won’t know what hit you!
  • Forum Novelties Deluxe Plush Gray Donkey Animal Half Mask by Mina Loy. Paperback, $15.00, on sale May 10th. Like looking into a mirror and seeing your true self!
  • I invite all publishers to join us in trolling the hell out of Amazon and all showroomers this season by changing our titles and jackets to resemble those products that we think would best benefit them. I doubt many of these app users will even be disappointed. After all, if users of the showroom app really valued books, they’d support the future of literature by supporting indie bookstores.


    Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.