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Cell phones find deals for savvy shoppers

Services let consumers punch in a bar code, look for better prices nearby or on the Web

The market for mobile commerce is small but growing. It helps "improve the shopping experience," business professor Haim Mendelson said. AP/LISA POOLE

In an age when cell phones have become the ultimate multitasking device, a handful of entrepreneurs are hoping to add another use: comparison shopping.

Frucall, an Irvine, Calif., company, says people can dial its service as they shop the stores, punch in a bar code and find out whether a particular item is available cheaper online.

Manhattan-based Scanbuy offers a similar application for cell users who have an unlimited data plan.

And GPShopper in Manhattan, unlike the other two, provides a service that helps customers find a nearby store where a particular product is in stock.

The niche of people using these services is still small, but the companies are eyeing an ever-growing population of cell users who are becoming increasingly accustomed to accessing the Internet on their phones. In a December survey by the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., market-research company, 40 percent of subscribers had some form of data plan, and of those browsing the Internet on their cell phones, 75 percent visited either eBay or Amazon.com.

"There are 2 billion people worldwide with cell phones," said Alex Muller, GPShopper's chief executive. "Worldwide, more people are able to access the Internet via cell phones than computers."

Slifter, the cell phone application GPShopper launched nationwide last year, takes the customer's ZIP code and a search term, and provides locations, photos, product descriptions, availability and sometimes store promotions. Retailers such as Best Buy pay to be in the system, which is vendor-supported.

While Slifter aims to reduce wasted time and frustration, Frucall offers the customer information about online prices and deals when the consumer is in the store, touching and examining the product. By dialing a toll-free number, the shopper can hear or receive a text message of top prices, reviews and shipping costs and decide whether the store price is fair, said Behzad Nadji, Frucall's chief executive.

"We have all been in that situation where we do an online search for a product and we have to go through tens of thousands of leads you have to follow through," Nadji said. "So why not go to one place that does all the checking and not only that, I want to have that while I am at the store buying the item."

Frucall and similar services like Scanbuy Shopper, from the Scanbuy, introduces a "dimension of virtual competition," benefiting consumers and online retailers, said Haim Mendelson, a professor of electronic business, commerce and management at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

"It's a way to add more information to improve the shopping experience from the shopper's point of view, and sales productivity from a retailer's point of view," Mendelson said.

The next step is simplifying the process and arming consumers with software that will allow them to transmit a bar code with a camera phone. Manhattan-based Scanbuy already has the software, but many phones used in the U.S. aren't able to recognize the bar codes traditionally used in retail.

However, Chief Executive Jonathan Bulkeley predicts that in two to three years most products and ads will have two-dimensional bar codes that most phones with cameras will be able to read.

The market for these applications is small today. Services similar to Slifter are constrained because of the large amount of inventory information required by retailers, said Sucharita Mulpuru, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based technology and market research company. And consumers aren't likely to be interested in conducting extensive searches on their cell phones, she said.

"There's a lot of excitement around mobile commerce, but I think the solution mobile is going to solve is not necessarily packaged goods problems, but more event experience solutions like restaurant reservations and buying tickets," Mulpuru said.

Mobile commerce won't surpass brick-and-mortar sales or buying over the Internet with a personal computer, but it is growing, Mendelson said.

But, he added, when the market grows, these different companies want to make sure they are in a strong position.

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