Last Updated Oct 9, 2010 4:26 AM EDT
Instead of trying to explain the power of this new form of "price transparency," as Mint.com Founder (and now VP & GM of Intuit Personal Finance) Aaron Patzer is calling it, I'll simply present the chart below, which is an embedded graph made on the new site, data.mint.com. (Mint Data is in beta now and launches officially on October 18th.) This chart shows how much, on average, people pay for gas in Brooklyn, NY:
Patzer says that Mint Data is a "fun consequence of having all this data," and acknowledged to me earlier this week that it's possible that "we will have an API [Application Programming Interface] that integrates with every location-based service," allowing you to see Mint price data on say, restaurants when you're using an app like Foursquare.
Of course, there's no way to know just how many Mint.com users buy gas in Brooklyn, so this isn't such a reliable graph -- in other words, there's no way to know how big the sample size is, or how many gallons of gas people are buying at each station. But the potential is there: with more data, you'll be able to see which gas station near you is, on average, the most expensive. Same goes for restaurants, car services, plumbers, and so on. Right now, the data is too vague to be very useful in comparison shopping, but the potential is massive.
If Intuit decides to integrate data from Quicken, their personal finance tool, into Mint's data site, the impact for commerce could be swift and sobering. Quicken is very popular with 10 million annual users, so that's a lot of anonymous data -- billions of transactions. This mean the average prices you see on Mint Data could become more meaningful. If Mint's new data site could show you what, on average, people spend at local venues, that would indeed be "price transparency."
Milo.com is a startup I wrote about this summer, and attempts to do something tangential: make local store inventory transparent, so that you can see which stores nearby have an item you want to buy.
Tools like Milo and Mint Data -- plus the already-booming store reviews on Yelp!, Google (GOOG) Maps and CitySearch (IAC) -- means a shift in the way that local businesses can advertise and do business. If a consumer can compare the prices and inventory of every store within 10 miles of his house, his shopping experience can become much more efficient. But this isn't necessarily a boon for SMBs, which could find themselves in price-war scenarios over commodity goods like gas or food.
Of course, Mint Data and Milo could also be of assistance to businesses who want to optimize procurement; a Christmas tree farm could, for example, use these services to predict how many trees to cut for each week approaching Christmas, and they could also see what their competitors were charging for trees. That would make for much more accurate budgetary predictions.
Most of all, though, this kind of price and inventory transparency will bring real-life and online commerce into more direct competition. Right now, you can compare online merchants with, say, Google Shopping, immediately figuring out who's selling a certain item most cheaply. If the same ability exists for real-world stores, it may mean someone is in for a price correction. (It'd be interesting to see how FreshDirect compares in price to local supermarkets, for example.) Whatever the case, the way in which we buy things locally is primed for disruption.
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