How Amazon thinks it can get you to hit 'buy' in 2 seconds or less (Q&A)

The company's new mobile app aims to make you buy your most-used products faster than ever before. Here's how your household items -- and a bit of augmented reality -- could help the retail giant's bottom line.

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Amazon's recently released mobile app came with a new feature that's meant to make you buy your entire shopping list with as few clicks as possible.

In the past, Sam Hall, Amazon's vice president of Mobile, has talked about making the mobile shopping experience one where the customer goes from "wanting to buy" to buying in 30 seconds. But this latest update to the main Amazon iOS app has got him talking about a much smaller window.

"We're obsessed with it," he said in an interview with CNET on Thursday. "We'd love customers to get from 'they want it' to 'they want to buy it' in two seconds or zero seconds, so this is just another way to make it really easy for customers to shop on their phones."

The new app for the iPhone (Amazon hasn't announced plans for any other devices yet) comes with an augmented-reality scanner. Dubbed Flow, it's the new iteration of a feature called "Snap It," which let users search for items -- mostly things like books, video games, and CDs -- by taking a photo of them. With Flow, which has been in development for at least three years, Amazon shoppers just have to point their smartphones cameras at items and the app will scan and search for them. You can then add it to your cart, buy it with 1-Click, add it to your wish lists, or subscribe to the item, which will automatically reorder the product for you periodically.

It's all in the name of getting you to buy things as quickly as possible, namely consumables -- products that you need to replenish on a regular basis, like food, razor blades, or toothpaste. Consumables is one of Amazon's fastest-growing categories, according to the company, and Flow is meant to speed up your purchase process.

Being able to get customers hooked on purchasing products regularly is important to any retailer, and Amazon is pretty aggressive about it. The company is always in pursuit of this constant source of sales -- just look at its Amazon Prime program, which rolls in free two-day shipping with other subscription services. Customers who sign up are more likely to buy as much as they can on Amazon to save on shipping. It's so frequently used, Amazon is thinking of raising its rates for the subscription.

Hall talked with CNET about how he thinks Flow will help Amazon achieve faster purchases and what customers can expect from the new image-recognition feature. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: The image-recognition capability is certainly a very cool piece of tech, but is it practical? Why is it better than scanning a barcode or typing it in?
Sam Hall: It doesn't require you to line up over a specific barcode, and it's a very simple motion. You simply need to pass your camera over the package you're holding in your hand and it'll identify it. And what it's really good at is -- say you're doing your weekly shopping and there are seven things you need. I can quickly, without any incremental clicks, I can pass my phone over the seven items i need and it'll identify them and put them in my list. So it's really, really quick and it's multiple items.

Last Friday, I was looking at my medicine cabinet and I needed new razor blades, new Crest cinnamon toothpaste, and new shampoo, and all I had to do was click the Flow button once and pass by all of them in quick succession, and very quickly I was able to order all three of those.

What do you want customers to use it for?
Hall: Customers often use things in ways that surprise you. But we built this with the idea, we want customers to be able to replenish things as quickly as possible, so when I'm in my pantry trying to figure out the eight things I need to order or in my bathroom trying to figure out the three things I need to order, I can order them right away. I can add them to my cart, or I can subscribe to them. You can subscribe and save.

Flow is not completely accurate yet. Some people are finding that it's not picking up the right colors or sizes, or picking up the brand but not necessarily the right product. What kind of improvements can we expect?
Hall: Right now when you identify something, Amazon might have several different configurations of that particular product. I'll go back to my toothpaste example. You may be able to order one tube at a time, or four tubes at a time or ten tubes at a time. So what we do when there are multiple configurations, we'll say, "Hey, this is what we think is the mostly likely thing you want to buy," but then there's a link you can click which will expand it to all the configurations that Amazon might have.

Our vision for this is we want customers to be able to identify anything, so we'll continue to work to make it a little better every month.

Does this leave room for things like produce or other perishables? Like things that are sold through Amazon Fresh? Will I be able to take a picture of a head of lettuce and see what lettuce is available?
Hall: That would be fantastic (laughter). Like I said, our vision with this is to have it recognize everything, so we're going to keep working on this and we're going to continue to innovate this for our customers.

Any other thoughts or hopes for how you think customers will receive this feature?
Hall: Our goal is for customers to be able to buy what they want as quickly as possible, and we think this is yet another way customers can quickly purchase what they run out of. You really want to get from intent -- from I ran out of this, I want to buy some more -- to have them purchase as quickly as possible. If you look around and see how people are using their phones today, they pull it out of their pockets, they want to get something done and then put it back in their pockets. Our goal is to support that, help them get what they want done and get on with their lives.

 

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