BBC BLOGS - dot.Rory
« Previous | Main | Next »

Mobile barcodes and smarter shopping

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:35 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Could the barcode, a technology invented 60 years ago, be the next big thing in making mobile phones a powerful shopping tool? Tesco certainly thinks so. Today it's launching what it claims is the first UK grocery app to include a barcode scanner.

Now, like many people, I've used apps on both the iPhone and Android phones that scan barcodes and then give you a readout of comparative prices for various products. They are great fun to show off to friends but after a while it's difficult to work out when you would use them.

But Tesco thinks it's found a compelling use. The company paints a picture of you the customer finding that you've used the last tin of tomatoes, then scanning it with your phone so that it goes into the online shopping basket for your next home delivery. Or you might be out at a friend's for dinner, compliment them on their delicious Tesco Finest cheesecake, and scan that for your next online shop.

Two screengrabs of Tesco app for iPhone


Hmmm, I'm not quite convinced that pulling out your phone and finding out just how cheap your host's dessert was will endear you to them, but maybe it will become quite the thing at fashionable dinner parties.

Right now the app is only available on the iPhone - Tesco says 10% of online grocery customers have the Apple phone so that was the natural place to start - but it should be coming to Nokia and Windows phones with cameras at some stage.

What would make it really useful though is if you could use your phone in a store to scan and then pay for goods without having to queue up.

That kind of application is starting to appear. In the United States Starbucks is trying out a system which allows iPhone and Blackberry users to pay for their coffees with a barcode. And, in the UK, I recently checked in for a flight with a barcode which had been e-mailed to my phone, though I'm not entirely clear that this was more convenient than a paper ticket.

The idea that your phone can become an all-purpose digital wallet and identity device has been around for more than a decade, and it's taking a lot longer than many expected to become a reality. Now that Britain's most powerful retailer is putting its weight behind the idea, perhaps its time really has come.

Update 1225: To clarify, Tesco have been in touch to stress this is the first grocery app with a barcode scanner on the iPhone.

As others have pointed out, there is already an Ocado Android app which features a barcode scanner.

Ocado tells me that the app has been very popular - after starting with an iPhone app, it decided to offer extra innovations on its Android app, including the barcode scanner and voice search. They won't confirm this, but hinted that barcode scanning might soon come to their iPhone app too.

I've asked Tesco when it plans to bring its barcode scanner to Android phones, but the retailer hasn't been able to give a date.

So yes, Android is proving a focus for smartphone innovation.


  • Comment number 1.

    I usually giggle at comments about BBC bias, but it really feels that Rory has to squirm to avoid mentioning Android. Have Tesco specifically stated that they will be prioritising Windows/Nokia over Android?

    have Strabucks said they will not develop for Android? (No, they haven't: ).

    It is bizzare that he feels unable to use the A word in these blogs.

    PS I'm not particularly an Android fan, just puzzled.

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting. Combined with the new NFC chips in the likes of Nokia's C7 this could prove quite interesting. I remember the original app coming out on Nokia first as about 30-40% of Tesco's online customers have Nokia smartphones. Just a little perspective, you understand.

    However, I also remember back in the earlier part of the decade Safeway trying out handheld scanners which proved to be a failure. Most people simply couldn't be bothered scanning things.

    Never underestimate the power of human laziness.

  • Comment number 3.

    Again... no mention of Android. What's the deal?

  • Comment number 4.

    Tesco is, of course, wrong.

    The Ocado app for Android (or A****** if Rory prefers) features bar code scanning, and also a surprisingly effective voice search. So I can scan my almost-empty carton of baby milk, or click the microphone button and say "Baileys Cream" to find the elusive double cream with Baileys that a friend swore exists but couldn't find on the Tesco website.

    And they price-match Tesco on most products too. So, welcome to the party, Tesco and iPhone owners. But I'm afraid that at best you're fashionably late.

  • Comment number 5.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "Could the barcode, a technology invented 60 years ago, be the next big thing in making mobile phones a powerful shopping tool?"

    this is widespread in Japan, time it happened here too; the big supermarkets now all have the (technological) infrastructure in place, and virtually all of us have mobiles with cameras, bring it on.

    "In the United States.."

    yeah, if they have it, then it must be good.

  • Comment number 6.

    Another good Apple post Rory.

    It's a shame this can't be linked to instore shopping more easily. Some of us still like to get the exercise and visit shops.

  • Comment number 7.

    Once upon a time, if you lost your phone it was a minor inconvenience. But the way things are going, in a couple of years, if we lose our phones, we'll find ourselves broke, lost, locked out of our own homes and cars, and probably deleted from officialdom's records. The "Phoneless" will be forced to band together for survival, eking out a meagre, 'Mad Max 2' - style scavenging existence in the sewers and ruins and woods, looked down upon and feared by the sophisticated iUrbanites, and eventually devolving into a separate species.

  • Comment number 8.

    Why can't people just allow Rory to write a post about an interesting use of technology without complaining that he hasn't mentioned their favourite phone or supermarket? If you check the news sites, you'll find that it's Tesco that have just announced an iPhone app. It's pretty much inevitable that other supermarkets will do (or already have done) a similar thing, and that other phones will also be included. But the story is about the technology. If I'm excited about it, I will of course ask the question (via Bing, not through this forum) whether it will apply to my supermarket and my phone. And if it's really exciting, it might even affect my choice of where to shop or which phone to buy.

  • Comment number 9.

    Rory the reaction to your Android avoidence is quite entertaining. I think next week you should develop a bias that the Apple fans can kick off about for a while.

    In terms of the barcode scanning app I suppose it depends on the take up, Tesco's approach is novel and may get some traction but I think as a concept people will have to get used to it so if a few retailers are doing it we would all get in the habit.

    It shouldn't be too hard, most of my friends use Shizam for music and that sits in the same conceptual space.

  • Comment number 10.

    Looks like he's changed the article to mention the A word. Interesting subject because I was thinking of photographing a barcode on a tins of toms in my local supermarket using my iphone then seeing if it would register at the self-service checkout.
    This has potential but for what? Definately not assessing the dinner hosts generousity or otherwise.

  • Comment number 11.

    #2 I still occassionaly self scan if I go to waitrose.
    It must have been in the 1990s that safeway was doing self scan because I used to use it regularly when I lived near Basingstoke. At the same time safeway and sainsbury's had plastic boxes the size of shopping baskets you could buy to put shopping into rather than the carrier bags - these were cheap and there were special trolleys that could fit them, I'm surprised that with the growth of "bag for life" these boxes seem not part of the green shop today.

    I suppose the next revolution beyond the app is built in scanner in the fridge/cupboard which is internet connected and automatically generates new stock order for 2 months time having calculated the rate of consumption of the tomato ketchup.

  • Comment number 12.

    Press release copying/pasting journalism at it's worst.
    There would have been no need for the update if the journalist had of researched the story first.

  • Comment number 13.

    I can see more intelligent apps on the horizon which will figure out that you scan oven chips every two weeks and begine to automatically purchase it every two weeks for you in future. Maybe this is one technology that you might want to disable any auto-update facilities.

  • Comment number 14.

    For god's sake, this is a blog, not a heavily researched survey of supermarket apps for smart phones.

  • Comment number 15.

    I'm tired of people bickering about which phone/platform gets the most attention on this blog. For info (and because I was bored in my lunch break) here is the frequency distribution of some words from Rory's posts in October:

    Facebook: 57
    Windows: 26
    iPhone: 26
    Android: 25
    Apple: 24
    Google: 23
    Microsoft: 20
    Nokia: 10
    Samsung: 7
    Symbian: 6

    Can't we have some intelligent debate about the interesting uses of cameras in smart phones instead?

  • Comment number 16.

    What we really need is a barcode scanning app that checks for the best price across multiple outlets not just Tesco...

    oh hang on there's one already, sorry it's iphone only at the moment

    Red Laser

  • Comment number 17.

    All this Apple gets a mention Android does not moaning is quite playgroundish and comes across as merely BBC bashing.

    Anyhoo, regarding the future of bar-code technology, yes, it could be used my those interested in whipping their phones out the majority will be too lazy to do this.

    Can you imagine the accidents caused in supermarkets when shoppers take one hand off their shopping trollies to operate their whatever-phone. I foresee class action law suits following a multiple trolly pile-up in in the fruit and veg section.

    Nope, bar-code scanners are old hat, now, RFID chips in each product is the way forward. Linked to GPS locators in modern mobile phones, a shopper will merely have to pick up the goods, walk out of the shop, and as they cross the shops threshold the cost of the goods they have picked up and walked out with will be automatically paid for by the RFID/GPS/Banking intercommunication app.

    You read it here first, possibly.

  • Comment number 18.

    You're free to accept any old standards.
    I, however, expect higher standards that what was produced.

    And as for the fact it's on a Blog, what difference does that make? It's only a "News" story with user generated comments.

  • Comment number 19.

  • Comment number 20.

    :-) @ jr4412

  • Comment number 21.

    @16: That particular one may be iPhone-only, but ShopSavvy will serve the needs of Android owners (and in a highly unscientific head-to-head test scanning things around the office did better than Red Laser at finding some products). Realistically, this sort of innovation will find its way from one phone brand to the next quite quickly.

    @8: My Android-related comments were tongue-in-cheek, obviously. But the complaint about Tesco's claim (as put forward in the original article) was genuine and valid - this isn't the first barcode-scanning mobile shopping app. The Ocado app predates it and is *very* slick on Android. Hopefully the iPhone version should be getting the extra features too in a future release so Apple users aren't stuck with Tesco. :P

  • Comment number 22.

    14. At 1:38pm on 26 Oct 2010, camyeoerfraefrance wrote:
    .. this is a blog, not a heavily researched survey of supermarket apps for smart phones.

    So, stuff we read from the BBC stable under 'blogs' (and, heaven forfend, tweets) are pretty much suspect on any basis?

    At least the broadcast editorial is reliable:) But some savings are now suggested.

  • Comment number 23.

    Whether you accept it or not, you will find that different standards are applied in different circumstances. I would expect high standards for content where there has been sufficient time to do a thorough job. Different (and by implication lower) standards (of accuracy, completeness, source checking, and spelling and grammar) will apply for breaking news stories. I would put blogs somewhere between those extremes. A blog is not a news story.

    And I'm sure you wouldn't have made the typo you made if you hadn't simply been commenting on a blog ...

  • Comment number 24.

    Ah, I'd forgotten about tweets. Always suspect of course :-)

    But I wouldn't really call BBC blogs "suspect". I'm sure we all know not to expect the same degree of rigour and impartiality in a blog as we would in a news story. And obviously not in the comments.

  • Comment number 25.

    You obviously stay in more expensive hotels than I do Rory. In the US I frequently find myself in hotels without a Computer Suite and no access to a printer. So being able to check in to my homeward flight on my phone and not need a printed boarding pass means that I get to choose my seat early and don't have to do it at the airport

  • Comment number 26.


    I would expect high standards for content where there has been sufficient time to do a thorough job. Different (and by implication lower) standards (of accuracy, completeness, source checking, and spelling and grammar) will apply for breaking news stories. I would put blogs somewhere between those extremes. A blog is not a news story.

    Ahh, so this blog had a deadline had it? Hmm, it was obviously such an important piece that standards had to have been dropped. Yeah, right.

    I'm sure we all know not to expect the same degree of rigour and impartiality in a blog as we would in a news story.

    So you'd be happy if Nick Robinson blogged "Vote Tory!" in his BBC Blog and Andrew Marr blogged that the "ConDems will ruin Britain!" in his.

    Well, I wouldn't. Standards should be maintained across all BBC platforms.

    The BBC, whether they like it or not, (as it's in their charter), have a duty to be impartial. Occasions, such as this one, where there was a rush to produce a blog piece from a press release, without fully checking facts first is a very poor show.

    As for the typo, meah, I'm not a Journalist.

  • Comment number 27.

    "Standards should be maintained across all BBC platforms."

    I'm loving the irony here - keep it up! :-)

    If you know of a more impartial news source than the BBC, let me know.

  • Comment number 28.

    The BBC, itself, albeit a few years back.

  • Comment number 29.

    Those were indeed the days. When the BBC was able to tread that thin line between impartiality on the one hand and partiality on the other.

  • Comment number 30.

    Tengsted #28.

    "The BBC, itself, albeit a few years back."

    just over seven years ago, Kelly and Gilligan, two people who weren't cowed by strength of the 'dark side'. then the proverbial hit the fan and that was the end of the BBC we loved.

    "Gilligan's report said a government statement that Iraqi forces could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes was based on false intelligence that officials knew was unreliable."

    we do live in interesting times. ;)

  • Comment number 31.


    Yup, jackbooted into submission/the grave. Pity :-(

  • Comment number 32.

    Glad to see the Android correction, but can I pick up on the flight check-in bit? ;-) I know BA just recently released an iPhone app (which I guess is what you're referring to, Rory), but I've been using mobile phone boarding passes with bmi for at least a year, if not two (on a few different SonyEricsson phones as well as my HTC Desire). It uses the older fashioned MMS (picture messaging) but this has the advantage of working with lots more phones and really works pretty nicely. I also find it's useful when you're travelling and don't have easy access to a printer - nice to have the BP and go straight to security :-)

  • Comment number 33.

    "The BBC, whether they like it or not, (as it's in their charter), have a duty to be impartial."

    I'd be fascinated to see where it says this - I've just had a look at the charter, and nowhere does the word "impartial" make an appearance. It is required to be independent, but that's something quite different - it means it should not be swayed by the demands of either the Apple or Android-touting crowd for instance...

    And how does one define impartiality anyway? Giving equal time and space to all is clearly not viable: there are clearly some phoneOS for instance which are more important than others (giving as much time on this blog to non-smart-phones would be silly). So how is impartiality assessed? ON the basis of market share? Value of the company? By both of these measures Apple should be getting more, not less, exposure than it currently does.

    Personally, I think Rory gets it about right.

  • Comment number 34.

    Hi Rory

    In R&D we're working on your "desire" - to enable in-store "scan as you shop" using your smartphone. It's early days yet but I've written up about the work so far in my blog article:

    Best regards
    Nick Lansley R&D

  • Comment number 35.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 36.

    I used the app at home last night to add several items to a shopping basket. It worked flawlessly, but I was careful to arrange the barcodes so that they could be scanned properly. Perhaps I needn't be so fussy, but it didn't seem like the sort of process you would want to repeat a couple of dozen times in a supermarket. (Sorry - not allowed to access blogspot from work!)

  • Comment number 37.

    Hi Rory,

    As designers of the app, we worked hard with Tesco to think about the practical context of use for mobile grocery scanning. Here's a few thoughts:

    Customers are now able to quickly and conveniently add products like milk to their online basket before putting their empties in the recycling bin. It's all about the short bursts of shopping activity, as opposed to carrying out a full shop every time you get your phone out. These are roughly 10-15 second experiences. Scan it. Add it. Forget about it. Simple.

    Furthermore, looking at how this would apply to traditional grocery shopping, some customers may wish to venture into competitors’ stores to scan and add products at potentially cheaper prices than those in-store.

    We think that this new concept for groceries will work best for the more demand-elastic, higher value products that aren’t deemed necessities, and therefore can be delivered a few days later without inconvenience.

    The ability to scan simply brings together the intangible nature of an online shopping service, with the hands-on product interactions we have every day. It's a very interesting and growing area and certain to contribute to the increased convenience of everyday grocery m-commerce.

    Jerome Ribot
    Creative Director

  • Comment number 38.

    I think it's great that technology is moving this way.
    Being able to scan the last item at home and add to your online shopping basket is a great move forward.
    We were just disappointed in our household that it's currently for iPhone only because we'd love this functionality now. :-)

    Yes, we're both Android users but we're not fanatical either way about one device or another.

    The problem is the industry - Tesco says on it's website that it supports cross-platform apps. This is obviously not the case but this is not Tesco's fault.
    The only way that a true cross-platform app can be developed is in languages such as Java or Flash and each of the main players are making it difficult for this to happen across platforms.
    The developer of this app (Ribot) is now in a very difficult position - Apple and Nokia were dominant but Android now appears to be on a par in numbers with the other platforms. They could end up developing for multiple platforms and the gamble could be large - should they develop for Windows 7 before its success, or not, is clear? They could end up spending a huge effort on platforms that don't last.

    For now we have to use 3rd party apps to scan our products and manually add the items into Tesco online :-(

  • Comment number 39.

    Here I come out of left field to offer a different perspective.
    Smart phone this, smart phone that - what happens if modern technology goes down.
    Have we not put all of our eggs (unscanned) into on basket (unscanned).
    The more dependent, technology makes us on smart equipment, the less independent we are, and the less we use our brains for the purpose for which they were intended: To know thyself and to thine own self be true.
    Was there not just a study done that said some students actually show signs of withdrawal if deprived of their modern toys for even twenty-four hours. How uncomfortable can you get in your own skin!
    No "clever" phone can serve an essentially dumbed-down human being if that clever phone has been cleverly demobilized.

  • Comment number 40.


    The Agreement that sits along side the charter

    Have a look, and you'll see plenty about impartiality and fairness.

    While Rory generally does a decent job, and varies his subject matter more than another dot blog, I feel the rush to publish in this case, without proper fact checking, was wrong.

  • Comment number 41.


    Thank-you - that does clearly have much to say about impartiality, although most to do with "controversial subjects" which - responses to this blog notwithstanding, I think it could be argued this is not. Still, I admit there is enough there to certainly argue most output of the BBC should aim towards impartiality.

    Regardless, I still think the question should be asked, how actually does one define impartiality? I agree that in this particular case, the fact that Tesco appear initially to have made a claim which proved false was unfortunate, and thus in this case a blog which could be perceived as less than impartial was published. But overall, like you, I think Rory does a good job of balanced output. Many feel otherwise, but I sense frequently that this is not genuinely due to a desire for impartiality, more a desire for more exposure of their own personal cause célèbre, whatever that might happen to be.

  • Comment number 42.

    Musric #41.

    " actually does one define impartiality?"

    in this particular case? a quick survey of all national supermarket chains (or the 'big five' at least) re what their current plans are would have done since it would have allowed RCJ to write a paragraph or two outlining the situation with reference to the others while writing his post about Tesco.

  • Comment number 43.

    24. At 4:27pm on 26 Oct 2010, camyeoerfraefrance wrote:
    Ah, I'd forgotten about tweets.

    And don't forget cutting and pasting. That way things like names can be easily ported without mis-spellings, which can matter to some.

    But I wouldn't really call BBC blogs "suspect".

    As is your right.

    I'm sure we all know...

    Ah, there we must part. What you believe and 'we all' know can often be different.

    '...not to expect the same degree of rigour and impartiality in a blog as we would in a news story. And obviously not in the comments.

    For the latter, well, yes, obviously. Comments do reflect the vast scope of opinion that exists out there. To be taken on their merits, or lack of, based on skill in argument and reliability of reference. Which, it seems, would seem to mean not using anything in a BBC blog, by a paid 'reporter' of a £3.6B uniquely-funded news and entertainment corporation, as a basis for reliable information. In case, at best, it was done in hurry.

    As to what might be expected, maybe some do expect rigour and impartiality. Some even can't imagine such things not existing: - sadly, if ironically, now closed for comments.

    Or anything getting in the way:

    So between saving money by writing any old thing and using cuts as excuses to reduce and terminate any avenues for non outbound broadcast-only feedback if it is found wanting, it doesn't seem too encouraging.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.