Scan Click Shop

AirClic's bar codes let shoppers download ads and order goods via mobile phone

About two years ago, Peter Ritz had just put the kids to bed and was about to turn in when the phone rang. It was his longtime friend, Bob Schena, founder of FutureVision of America. The interactive-TV pioneer had been reading the Sunday paper and an ad caught his eye. But he was frustrated by scant information. Then it struck him: "Wouldn't it be cool to make print interactive?" He called Ritz to share his idea.

Ritz could have gone back to bed, but the notion intrigued him--and AirClic Inc. was born. With his West Conshohocken (Pa.) startup, Ritz hopes to propel e-tailing into the mainstream by making newspaper and magazine ads gateways to the digital world. By embedding tiny bar-code scanners into wireless phones, pagers, and handheld computers, these devices can be pointed at bar codes in print ads. Press a button, and the phone downloads product information hidden in the code. Then the phone automatically relays a purchase order or a request for information to the retailer's Web site. The goods are on the way.

Ritz believes he can revolutionize e-tailing by eliminating the annoying task of typing on a mobile device. "When you make it easy to buy, people buy more," he says.

AirClic has the market's attention. A group led by Goldman, Sachs & Co. bought 40% of the shares in March. Goldman estimates total Internet retail revenue will reach $184 billion by 2004, up from $20 billion in 1999. AirClic estimates half will be mobile commerce and projects it could capture 25%, or $23 billion, in the form of retailer fees. The wealth could spread. Wireless-gear makers would sell new phones. Carriers would benefit from increased traffic. Print publishers would see the value of their ads rise, just as they face online competition, because they could better analyze which ads work. And all parties would get a cut of AirClic's sales.

Still, hurdles loom. Rivals in Fort Lauderdale and in Tempe, Ariz., offer a similar scanning technology for mobile devices--aimed strictly at shopping. AirClic goes a step further, dishing up info--for example, diners could get details about a memorable wine from a bar code on the bottle.

AirClic must still win broad support. The upstart has met with mobile players such as Nokia, but has no contracts. Carriers such as AT&T are testing AirClic and rival products. "It's going to be a challenge to get all of the players in place," says Yankee Group analyst Crispin Vicars. That's why Ritz, a Russian immigrant with degrees in biochemistry, computer science, and law, has barely slept since Schena called.

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