2010.05 | iPad Store

I read a great quote recently about the Apple iPad release on Wednesday.  While Steve Jobs commented that Apple and iPad were placing themselves at the crossroads of Technology and  Liberal Arts, Stephen Fry says: “He might perhaps more accurately have said that Apple “stands at the intersection of technology, the liberal arts and commerce”.”  This is an excellent point and it will be fascinating to see whether the iPad catches on, and what impact this will have on the consumer landscape with respect to the buying and selling of media.  While many will dissect the features of the device itself, the fact of the matter is that this device and others like it are driving us ever further along the road of the new consumerism where customers don’t go to a physical store – the store is always on and always in our bag or our pocket, and the ability for instant gratification and delivery is a reality.

iTunes dwarfs all other sellers with respect to music and media online, and are now making a break towards reading material.  Amazon built internet commerce with their store and their impossibly long shelf of books.    Amazon recognized the potential of the shift to portable electronic media when they came out with the Kindle and Kindle DX.  The implications of a massively popular device that allows for downloadable media like books, newspapers and magazines are massive.  While Kindle has opened that door a crack, iPad has the potential to rip it right off the hinges with the volume of users it can bring to the party.

iTunes and other online stores have the capability to charge a reduced rate for a publication that can be provided instantly.  There is no more incentive to wait in a queue ’til midnight for the new Harry Potter novel, to wait until 5 am for your morning paper, or to wait for you monthly subscription to Wired to arrive.  It just arrives.  While the Kindle does this already, the iPad can take it up a notch by providing a more accurate reflection of the physical experience of reading a magazine and some books by providing a flashy, engaging full colour format in a novel, hip, interactive package – one upping the Kindle. 

From a consumer facing organization perspective, this opens another rich mobile channel.  With the iPad, consumers now have a web enabled (though no flash) 9.7″ 1024 x 768 screen in their hand wherever they go.  They’ve not only got the store in their pocket to buy music, movies, books, newspapers and magazines, but they have a portal to the physical world that does not currently exist. 

The package presented by the iPad transcends the problem with mobile devices – the small screen.  Now consumer facing organizations have a bigger window to show clients.  Instead of trying to order a meal from Swiss Chalet on your mobile device and having to scroll through myriad menus and sections to pick your options – all very well done considering the screen real estate at Swiss Chalet Mobile – consumers can potentially look at a menu exactly as you would see at the store, pick the items off the touchscreen, and finalize the order in a format and interface that is far more like being in the restaurant than either a PC with a mouse or a mobile device.

The GPS and compass in the solution allow that “full screen” device location enablement.  The purchaser of a new dress can look online for a matching pair of shoes online while she is in a cafe by perusing a visual search engine such as Like.com.  That shopper can now see that the pair of shoes that she likes are at Nordstrom.  If Nordstrom has thought it through, she would be able to see on their site that the store has 1 pair left of size 6, and she can have them put on hold for her at the click of a button.

The fullscreen also provides an interface more likely to drive clickthroughs on targeted advertisements as well.  This provides a potentially rich opportunity for the beleagured magazine and newspaper industries who can now provide richer feedback to advertisers on who is clicking on their ads, and allow those advertisers to use the GPS to drive offers to readers with a further level of refinement.

It appears that consumers and retailers alike are in for a richer mobile experience.

2010.04 | Self Service and Vending Collide

Consumers have been accustomed to vending machines in Canada for decades.  Pop, candy, and bubble gum machines are ubiquitious – seen at the front of stores across the country.  If you are old enough, you may even remember cigarette machines in Canada – banned long ago with the age verification problems associated with them. 

Self service in the form of ATMs, airline check-in kiosks and self-checkouts also have a strong presence across the country.  While the technology of vending machines seems relatively rudimentary and mechanical compared to their upscale counterparts, vending machines and self service are quietly converging.  Mark’s Work Wearhouse, for example, is experimenting with smart vending machines that sell clothing. (Yes, that’s me in the video clip) 

While it seems a bit strange to conservative Canadians to extend a  brand with vending, considering the incredible number of vending machines in places like Japan, it’s an interesting idea to try to expand one’s reach without building a whole store, or fitting into an environment where a store wouldn’t work.  Why not expand the brand beyond the traditional idea of a store? 

Examples of technologies and business models that can make this work:

PharmaTrust – Build an entire (well, most used perscriptions, anyway) pharmacy and then provide access to licenced pharmacists via video link. What a great opportunity to provide access to pharmacy services in small hospitals, clinics, places of business – wherever. 

ZoomSystems – Provide an entire store as a vending machine.  Best Buy and Rosetta Stone have used these, among others.

Vigix – This solution is a smart vending platform that sees all items for a vending machine sent in one secure container via courier, replaced by the courier with a smart RFID tag in the machine that opens it when the new cassette is near the machine.  This removes cost, effort, and shrink involved in stocking a traditional vending machine, while providing the intelligence of a processing unit that can provide interconnectivity to systems like a traditional kiosk platform.  It is now possible for higher value items to be dispensed in a much smaller platform in locations potentially useless for other uses.

2010.03 | Touchscreen or Keyboard?

The iPhone versus Blackberry debate brings out many strong opinions around the best interface for a mobile device.  Many business users rely heavily on a keyboard, and love Blackberry for it.  iPhone users have become accustomed to the less tactile, but very flexible input option of the touch screen.  What it truly comes down to is the use to which one puts the device.  If a great deal of text input is required, a keyboard is usually optimal.  For interactions that go beyond text input, a touchscreen has many unique benefits.

This same discussion has arisen many times with respect to self service solutions in a real life retail environment and the best interface depends on the solution.  Experience dictates that in many (not all) self service situations, a touch screen is a better option.  While the decision needs to be made based on the application and its intended audience, there are a number of valid reasons to utilize a touch screen keyboard instead of a phyical keyboard, including:

  • Cost Effectiveness - Additional acquisition and maintenance costs for physical keyboards are avoided with the use of touch.  Ruggedized keyboards necessary for self service can be costly with diaphragms built in for spillage and dirt and are composed of many moving parts.  Moving parts are the most likely to fail – particularly in a retail situation.  Given the size and scope of self service deployments, these cost savings can be significant.
  • Usability - An onscreen keyboard can simplify user interaction as it keeps the clients eyes in one place – on the screen.  As most kiosks are touch screen based, it is generally more intunitive to users to have one interface point – the touch screen.
  • Multi-Language Capability - Given increasing globalization, and regional language requirements as in Quebec, using on screen keyboards allows them to be adjusted by user.  Choosing a different language in the application provides another keyboard – a facility impossible with a standard hardware based keyboard.
  • Interface Flexibility - An onscreen keyboard provides the ability to customize a keyboard to suit the purpose of the application.  For example, if an entry requires only numbers, a number pad only can be shown on the screen, or if the application is searching a directory, non-relevant keys can be set as inactive, and relevant keys can be highlighted.
  • Interface Customization - A touchscreen keyboard can be changed to match the application and branding of the kiosk and can even by adjusted by banner.
  • Increased Uptime - Adding peripherals like keyboards to a system increases the potential for system failure. Keyboards can be broken, lose keys, are often spilled upon in consumer facing environments.
  • Responsiveness - The current iterations of touchscreen technology and fast processors mean a far more responsive product than in the past that is as responsive as a physical keyboard for minimal data entry. Take the increased usage of the iPhone with its touch interface as a confirmation of increased customer comfort with this interface.
  • Security - A touchscreen keyboard decreases security effort and risks by removing the need to lock down system based keyboard combinations like Ctrl-Esc and Ctrl-ALT-Del.
  • Customer Perception - Avoiding a physical keyboard provides a streamlined look for a kiosk solution – it looks like an interactive kiosk and not a PC. A kiosk is more novel and engaging to most consumers than a PC. They want to see what it does. Watch them in a store.

2010.02 | Scan those Coupons!

Given the Great Recession, one hears a great deal about coupons to encourage shoppers to buy.  Coupons have been around for quite some time, but are still surprisingly low tech in Canada.  While grocer specific coupons and offers are scanned, manufacturer driven coupons are generally accepted as part of a manual process in Canada.   This is an area ripe for automation to the benefit of retailer and consumer alike for the following reasons:

  • Cost Savings - Given that 84% of households in Canada used coupons in 2008 one would expect significant manual effort in gathering the coupons, validating the manufacturer, and tracking down the reimbursements.  With the constant attempt to reduce cost and employee effort, this represents real potential savings to a retailer.  If this effort is not completed, the retailer is providing customers discounts for certain brands out of their own pockets.
  • Throughput - While clerks still need to check expiry dates and validate the product purchased (why isn’t that automated via a central database?) scanning removes the need for at least 5-6 keystrokes per coupon – saving valuable minutes to the checkout process.  More people get through the checkout faster, and fewer people are embarassed by pulling out their coupons or frustrated by those who do so in front of them in the queue.
  • Customer Convenience - Self service solutions like kiosks or self-checkout are rendered less beneficial if coupons require manual entry.  Keying in coupon amounts represents an operation too complex for self service, (not to mention a fraud risk) reducing the amount of customers that will use it.  For those that attempt it without knowing coupons are manual, the transaction will be slowed by attendant intervention and will discourage the use of self service.  This all adds up to customer frustration which can reduce sales.
  • Fraud Reduction – While it is not possible to completely eliminate fraud, the increasing use of GS1 Databar codes may help, and if the codes don’t work on the scanner, it is easier for a clerk to refuse the coupon – minimizing potential losses.
  • Redemption Tracking – Knowing one’s customers becomes increasingly important in competitive times.  Understanding coupon redemption will enhance market basket analysis.  Enabling vendors to get an accurate, timely view of how consumers respond to an offer is extremely valuable, and can also allow for quicker response to coupon problems as data will be available to understand behaviour electronically.

While marketers, vendors and retailers are certainly on top of providing coupons via electronic means – email, web, mobile – there are few to date that are leveraging around electronic coupons: via 2d barcodes, NFC, or redemeed automatically at the checkout via a loyalty card.  While the individual values are small, coupons are important to a value conscious shopper, and the collective impact of coupon automation could be significant, so breaking the code is key.

2010.01 | eBooks > Physical Books | Mobile POS Ideas

eBooks > Physical Books – Amazon sold more ebooks than physical books on Christmas day.  While, as the article says, this was obviously driven by the fact that many people who received Kindles as gifts were purchasing books, and few people are likely to shop on Christmas versus many other days of the year, it is still a watershed moment.  This event strongly points to the Kindle as a potential iPod for books, and to a trend that may actually see consumers finally lean more towards electronic devices for reading media.

More importantly to book retailers, the reader itself represents a cheap, simple, direct channel right into the pocketbooks of consumers.  (Convenience, recommendations, 7×24 availability, and immediate satisfaction..what more could one ask for?)

The jury is still out, but this is an encouraging development for the Kindle and e-readers in general.  Add to the eBook discussions all of the incredible scuttlebutt of the continuously rumoured Apple Tablet, and we can expect lots of talk on electronic reading in general across the board.

Mobile POS Ideas - More potential for POS and mobile solutions came to the fore of late.  Of particular interest, more iPhone credit card readers, and movie theatres leveraging a mobile POS platform. While it’s still early days, and functionality and reliability leave a lot to be desired at present, look to this technology to become increasingly common in appropriate consumer facing places of business.

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