Why Flow, Amazon’s Magical Search Tech, Won’t Kill Off Retail

Flow lets you to compare prices of items you see in retail shops just by waving your smartphone at them–and then buy those items from Amazon instead. But that doesn’t mean brick-and-mortar stores are dead.

Yesterday, Amazon quietly updated its official iPhone app with Flow, an augmented-reality search function that allows you to compare prices of items you see in retail shops just by waving your smartphone at them–and then buy those items from Amazon instead.


Like the invention of some mad scientist hell bent on conquering the world, Flow feels as magical as it does, well, slightly evil: cannibalizing retail sales from brick-and-mortar stores shouldn’t be this easy. But it might be too easy, even for Amazon’s sake.

Amazon first unveiled Flow as a standalone augmented reality app back in 2011, so it’s not new, but this is the first time that the online retailer has opted to make it one of two default search mechanisms of its main mobile app, replacing the Snapshot Search feature that preceded it. Small wonder: the experience feels like sorcery.

Instead of taking a manual snapshot of an item at a store you’re interested in, Amazon Flow analyzes everything your iPhone camera can see in real time. As you point your iPhone at objects, you can see the search function working, sprinkling everything that might be an item Amazon sells with glittery pixie dust. It’s almost like facial recognition tech for products, but in real time. When Amazon Flow sees something it recognizes, it automatically calls up that item on Amazon and shows you how much it costs, then moves on to the next scannable item.

For items that are in retail packaging, books, DVDs, CDs, and games, Amazon Flow works incredibly well. Perhaps more importantly, though, it drastically reduces the friction of pulling your phone out at an analog store to compare prices on Amazon.

Given how much Amazon is cannibalizing sales from brick-and-mortars, there’s always been something that feels, well, dirty about going into a store, seeing something you like, then buying it on Amazon. The previous snapshot search mechanism worked, but it was time-consuming: you had to pull out your phone, load the Amazon app, take a picture, upload it to Amazon’s servers, and wait for the price comparison to come back. Rinse and repeat.

Amazon Flow, on the other hand, is as simple as just waving your iPhone in the direction of something you want and letting the app do the rest. You may still be contributing to the ruin of brick-and-mortars, but at least you aren’t being conspicuous about it.


What is really fascinating about Amazon Flow, though, is what it potentially means for a future in which wearable headsets like Google Glass are ubiquitous.

Right now, the only way Amazon can get between a customer’s window shopping and a brick-and-mortar purchase is if that customer remembers the Amazon app in his or her pocket. And Amazon representatives say that Flow was designed explicitly for smartphones. But imagine a future full of wearables, in which Flow could constantly crop up between customers and the buyable items that surround them: an augmented reality Screwtape, seeing what shoppers are tempted to buy and constantly whispering in their ear about Amazon’s low, low prices. But is that really what Amazon wants?

From Amazon’s perspective, the more Amazon steps between a shopper and a real-world purchase, the less brick-and-mortars there will be. Yet analog retail stores also create demand for Amazon, and for some products, like clothing or furniture, customers will always want to go in and try it for themselves first, even if they do ultimately buy it for a lower price from Amazon. What this means is that Amazon is locked into a symbiotic relationship with the very retail stores that Flow is trying to steal sales from.

Perhaps that is why, when we asked Amazon’s reps if Flow could ever find its way to Google Glass, they took pains to emphasize it was designed as a smartphone-only product. In a future of wearables where Amazon can be an omnipresent UI layer between a shopper and what they want to buy, the technology behind Flow would work too well by half. Amazon wants to steal eggs from the retail hen house, not slaughter the chickens that lay them.