A purchase protection bot that delivers, albeit it in a less-than-comforting way

Price protection programs depend on shoppers not bothering to check after the purchase is done. This app changes all of that.

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Credit: Pixabay

One of retail's worst-kept secrets is that retailers offer rebates only because so few shoppers bother to go through the effort to redeem them. A similar phenomenon happens with many after-the-fact purchase-protection programs. Shoppers research purchases before they're made. Once the selection is done, how many bother to keep checking prices?

An app called Earny that was announced last week may challenge that purchase-protection assumption. When the company announced its launch — along with a tiny amount of seed money, roughly $1.2 million — it said that its "app automatically tracks purchases through emailed receipts, finds better prices, monitors price adjustments and files refund claims back to the original payment method."

Although the company didn't mention it in its announcement or on its site, it did release a list of the retailers it currently handles and it's impressive, including Amazon, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, CVS, Apple, Costco, Home Depot, JCPenney, Kohl's, Lowe's, Macy's, Ace Hardware, Bed, Bath & Beyond and a few dozen more, for a total of 58 major retailers.

In effect, what Earny is doing is quintessential grunt-level bot magic: tracking a very large number of Web activities, looking for price changes on specific SKUs. If the price goes up, it does nothing. If it goes down, it knows to flag that activity.

But the next part is where this gets interesting. Giving the shopper a heads up would be good, but that still places the paperwork burden on the consumer. Earny's app then files the refund paperwork and has it credited back to the original payment method, extracting the cash from either the retailer or the payment card issuer.

This concept — I'll get to the execution in a moment — is truly compelling. For starters, this would make price-protection programs much more valuable and compelling. Today, I tend to pay those offers little attention because I know that I'll never bother to follow up. I suspect I'm not alone. This could make these promises much more realistic and, therefore, persuasive. It will also force retailers and others to take them seriously, since they will likely be forced to pay rebates to a much larger number of shoppers.

Now the downside. The company tried to boost its own credibility by saying that, beyond the small investment it received, it had "additional participation from Jeff Bonforte, SVP, Communications Products at Yahoo, and Wealthfront CEO Adam Nash." Not clear what "participation" means in this context, but the vagueness is undoubtedly there for a reason."

This app's very nature requires that it ask a lot of sensitive questions about payment cards and banks and retailers. That is going to require a lot of trust with its shoppers.

What is not clear from what the company put out is the nature of the relationships with these retailers. If it's an active partnership, statements of support from the largest of those retailers would be a huge help.

But if the retailers' role is entirely passive, such as if Earny merely sends the bot to visit the public areas of the site with no retailer cooperation (which, given the absence of any retailer comments, seems likely), this gets trickier.

I'd personally love to use a service like this, but that deep burning love of laziness and saving money that exists within my heart pales when compared with my fear of giving payment card (and especially bank) information to anyone that I don't enthusiastically trust.

In short, this is a great idea and it's executing in the right ways, but I'd love to see a lot more comforting security and privacy endorsements.

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