One of the promises of the Internet of Things is the automation of tasks that are a drudgery. LG Electronics, for example, last year launched a line of smart appliances that enable owners to use a messaging service to remotely start their washer machine, get recipes for dinner from the microwave oven, and see whether they're running low on milk through a built-in camera that snaps a picture of a refrigerator's contents and sends it to the owner's smartphone.
That's a big leap forward for technology, but it doesn't go nearly far enough because you still need to go to the store and buy the laundry detergent, the meat and potatoes, and the milk. A real advance would be an appliance that ordered the items for you and had them delivered to your door.
Dash to the future
Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) thinks it can get you part of the way there. The Internet retailer recently revealed the Amazon Dash Button, a small Wi-Fi enabled device that allows you to order hundreds of common, household items at the push of a button.
Each button is branded to enable purchases of, for example, Tide detergent, Huggies diapers, or Glad trash bags. According to Amazon, "When you're running low, simply press Dash Button, and Amazon quickly delivers household favorites so you can skip the last-minute trip to the store."
Once you've placed your order, Amazon confirms it by sending an alert to your phone. The Dash Button only responds to the first order made and won't let you reorder the same product until the first one is delivered.
This promises to revolutionize how consumers shop. Why bother going to the store when at the press of a button the store can come to you?
It's even better than Amazon's grocery business, AmazonFresh, which allows users to shop for groceries from its website. Hunting down and finding the exact brands and sizes of items you're looking for one by one is a bit tedious. It's hard to beat one-button ordering. Or is it?
Supplemental, not replacement
First, only a few hundred items are available with a Dash Button, so you're still going to have to go to the store for the vast bulk of your groceries. While this is just the initial rollout, and one can imagine Amazon adding many more products to the lineup as the service takes off, it also highlights why this is nothing more than a cute gimmick.
Having a Dash Button stuck on your washer machine for laundry detergent is one thing, but do you really want to have dozens (or hundreds!) of them spread across your house for all the goods you buy?
Also, today's consumer remains price sensitive and is constantly looking for the best price. A Dash Button assumes consumers will simply press and forget, without thinking about where they can get the best deal.
This is one of the reasons why Wal-Mart has gone back to promoting its low-price advantage and is continuously pressing its vendors to offer better pricing. Last year, the retailer started its Savings Catcher program to automatically save consumers money if the price on items purchased drops afterward. As of September (the last time for which figures were available) it had saved Wal-Mart customers some $2 million.
The Amazon Dash Button is a neat idea that shows the potential offered by the Internet of Things, and is a step toward helping consumers with their need for instant gratification, removing one of the barriers to making a purchase and making shopping decisions brain-dead simple.
But as a practical matter it doesn't seem very workable. You're not going to want to have just one button, because you would still need to go to the store for the rest of your groceries. But having dozens stuck behind your pantry door would be plain unsightly.
The future is still in the future
The real leap forward will come when Amazon partners with an appliance maker like LG to program a Dash app into its appliances so that consumers can simply go to the refrigerator, get a list of what they're running low on, and hit a prominent Dash Button that orders everything they need.
Amazon is already moving in that direction through its Dash Replenishment Service, which connects with individual appliances to reorder goods that are running low. Whirlpool is developing a washer and dryer that can automatically order laundry supplies; Brother Industries is making a printer that can order ink and toner; and Brita is developing a connected water pitcher that measures how much water has passed through its filter and can contact the replenishment service to order a new one.
What the current iteration of the Dash Button shows is that more than anything else, CEO Jeff Bezos can get people talking about Amazon in ways that are relevant to their lives. That may be more important than whether the Internet retailer can meld one-button shopping into the Internet of Things.
Follow Rich Duprey's coverage of all the retailing industry's most important news and developments. He has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.