2012.05 | Surface 2.0 | 2D Payment | 3D Printing

Microsoft Surface apparently had a demo of their latest and greatest on a Samsung system at NRF.  I wasn’t able to see it live while I was at the show, and more the shame because it looks really, really great in this demo video.  There is no apparent bezel and a really slick looking fixture like finish on the surface (forgive the pun).  While it looks just tremendous, do we really think anyone will be looking at keyboards and mice on something like this?  I think this looks incredible, but there must be a better use for it than showing catalog items.

I find these solutions so engaging, and their use of tangible objects a great move forward from gesture based interfaces, but someone needs to grab this thing with both hands and apply it to their business in a way that will use it to best advantage.  How about selling mobile devices and full out demos of their interfaces right on the counter so that you can try them out life size?  That is the kind of transaction that can take place standing at a counter.  Add to the demo and review options the ability to fill in forms with preset info from a wallet and I think this would be a great solution in a mobile selling situation.  No more shells of phones connected with silly wire cables.  Just one slick screen used as sharing surface.

3D Printing Redux – I’ve talked about 3D printing on the blog a number of times now, and I’ve discussed it with some retailers, but it seems pretty far off into the future for most of them.  I would suggest that manufacturers and retailers  heed the lessons of their predecessors; the music, film, and publishing industries.    Just because you have a physical object as a product doesn’t mean you won’t have to change your business model.  I recently read that the Pirate Bay has started a section called Physibles.  This is an area of the well known downloading site where anyone can upload and download digital plans for 3D objects and print their own.

Remember that technology has been progressing faster than companies over the last number of years.  If manufacturers and retailers don’t keep an eye on this, and build ways of addressing it into their business plans, they could stand to lose in many ways.  On the other hand, if it is embraced, new business models can emerge.   New and better printers that can print larger and larger items will only make this trend more prevalent.   It’s certainly complicated, but it’s something to watch.

Paying via 2D Barcode – As someone who has been waiting for NFC to break for years now, I’m getting behind the trend of just working with what we have.  Most widely used mobile devices don’t have NFC yet, but more and more have cameras, so they can read 2D barcodes.

MasterCard in Australia has begun a trial run of their Qkr (pronounced Quicker) app that lets clients order food from their seat in a movie theatre.  Customers scan a barcode from the seat in a movie theatre, pick items from a menu and wait staff deliver it.  I’m assuming this is all tied to a MasterCard from within the app at the back end so no payment details are entered at the point of sale.  Wonder how that works with PCI?

It’s not the widely distributed payment system panacea for any retailer, but it’s a step in the right direction.

2012.04 | eBookstores > eReaders

I read a lot of books and since I got my iPad last June I have spent a great deal of time reading eBooks on my device.  When I bought it a year and a half ago, I only read a few eBooks, but that number has been steadily increasing.  In fact, over the last 6 months I’ve bought more than twice as many eBooks as traditional, and I expect that the number of traditional books I’m buying will only continue to decrease as I become accustomed to using an eReader.

From a retail technology experience, the most interesting part of e-reading is not the device itself.  The interesting part of the e-reader scenario is that retailers have moved a store from the desktop into the customers hands.

One of the unique aspects of using an iPad or an Android tablet device is that there are multiple apps that provide a software version of the e-Reader experience. On my iPad I have Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, Goodreader, and Bluefire readers.   Which is the best really depends on your needs and preferences.

Goodreader I find best for reading PDFs and many other file formats. That solution provides a PC like experience where a directory tree can be accessed and manipulated and files can be read, moved and more. It is a basic reader that works well for downloading and reading some of my 50 years of Mad Magazine PDFs, free books from the Internet Archive, or trade publications and studies that I want to read and keep in directories. It allows for notes and annotations that are useful – particularly for work reading.  While a very useful and free application for many purposes, I wouldn’t recommend this one for beginners who just want to read books.

I also have Bluefire for a very specific purpose. Early adopters of eBooks will remember Adobe Digital Editions. I recently decided to pull down an ebook only available on Digital Editions, and Bluefire was the best solution I could find to get that format on my tablet. Bluefire works fine, but I prefer apps with direct access to a bookstore as I expect most users do. I’m not interested in moving files around or changing formats or any of the other bothersome plumbing that Bluefire required.

iBooks is Apple’s eReader app. There were big hopes for iBooks based on the iTunes juggernaut. The app works well and is very polished in the Classic Apple manner. It was first out of the gate with attractive colour images of the book covers and art, but beyond the polish is just a bit lighter on functionality than the Kobo and Kindle apps. It originally lacked night reading functionality (white text on black background) which is important to me (no lamp clicking or bright light to trouble my sleeping spouse as I read at night).   On the whole it is very functional.  Note:  I haven’t played with iBooks 2, but I’m sure that ups the ante.

Amazon’s Kindle App is a very strong entry. It’s very simple and fundamental, but that also means it is intuitive. Changing fonts, navigating tables of contents and taking notes is well done. It is also easy to move books in and out of the archive to the main book shelf.   The app is also available on the iPhone and your place in the book is synched flawlessly (same goes for iBooks and Kobo). I never thought I would read on my phone but it does lend itself well to that should you unexpectedly catch yourself without your reader and time on your hands.

My personal favourite at present is the Kobo eReader app.  The Kobo app looks great, it has great note taking and bookmarking features, and the night reading feature meets my needs very well.  On the down side, Kobo changes the app constantly and seems to think that I want to share my reading habits with all of my Facebook friends and constantly wants me to do so – a flaw I work very hard to ignore.  I will at least give credit to the fact that Kobo is putting the effort into trying new things and staying ahead of the curve.  I have also managed to get library books into Kobo at one point, but it wasn’t easy.

At bottom all of these apps work well, but what makes any of them absolutely stand out?  Their stores.

Goodreader and Bluefire have no bookstore.  This is a non-starter for me.  I’m not going to use them as as my default reading app unless it’s easy to get library books into them.

iBooks have a great app.  They have the only bookstore that you can buy from directly within the app.  Apple decreed late last year that they were going to charge a 30% fee for everything sold within an app – an untenable business model for other booksellers.  Apple doesn’t have to pay a fee to themselves, so they have a monopoly on in app purchases.  While that gives them far and away the best user experience for purchasing, there is a problem.  Most of the books I want to purchase are not available on it.  I’ve only personally purchased one book from them.

Amazon had a great store on the iPad, but with the changes to apple policy that all went away.  Instead of a in app store, Kindle has to tell customers to keep a weblink on the iPad to their ebook store.  From there, the Kindle bookstore available to me is a bit of a debacle. First, it is a true webpage and has none of the simplified look and feel of a tablet app or tablet formatted webpage, making it less intuitive to less experienced users.  It feels like one has been dropped into a giant warehouse built with HTML from 2005 with no rhyme or reason.  It is easy to search but suggestions for purchases are way down past first screen requiring a scroll to see it. If a desired book is not available in Kindle format it just doesn’t show up but lower on the page there is an option to buy the hardcopy. While I understand that, it felt strange for the first number of times I used it. From a user experience and interface perspective it could improve.   Let’s be clear, though, Amazon are far more interested in getting you to buy a Fire or a Kindle, so they have spent their time building an intuitive interface for those devices instead.  [Note: Since I wrote this, they have upgraded the page and it's actually a bit better.]

Kobo are also hampered by having to provide a weblink for users on their iPads.  The store itself is far superior to the Kindle store on the iPad – web page or no.  It’s easy to navigate, and simple to find things.  It’s formatting fits on the tablet well.  They also have most of the books I’m looking for and – surprise of surprises – their prices have been lower of late.  They also recently updated their app to show some shelves that include recommendations.  A nice touch.

Some thoughts on all of this that are applicable to any shopping experience on a mobile device.

1.  The content is as important as the app.  The app has to look good and be functional, but if there is no content to back up the app, I’m going to lose interest.  The prices also have to be reasonable.

2. Making the user experience very very simple will sell more stuff.  I’m so sick of having to enter my login and passwords to buy books.  I know Apple is to blame for that, but figure out a way that I don’t have to do that.  Having to go back and buy the book on the webstore after reading the first chapter is really quite lame.  I should be able to just hit a button to get the rest of the book at the end of the chapter.  I’m also sick of hunting around for the button to download a sample.  Some of the stores make that hard to find.

3. Give people options on sharing.  I’m sure someone loves sharing all of their reading habits and opinions via social media.  That’s terrific, but don’t keep hitting me over the head with it if I’m not into it.  It gets downright bothersome.  I would appreciate a simple way to tell specific friends I think they should read this or that book – directly – without the world knowing.  Perhaps ask me at the end if I want to recommend it.  Maybe I could even get some points if my recommended friends buy it.

4.  All of the ebookstores could improve.  I like the fact that Kobo now suggests books I might like right on my bookshelf, but their recommendations seem a bit simplistic.  If I buy a book from an author, I don’t want every book on my recommendation shelf to be from that author.  I could figure that out.  Amazon makes some reasonable suggestions but I have to go online to see those.  On the whole, the ebookstores still feel like a web page to me.  Things shouldn’t feel like a web page anymore.  We’ve moved on to apps – or at least an app like interface.

5.  What are you using all of that data for?  Store and selling data is really interesting, but the data about consumption must be a new window that could not be cracked in the past.  As a consumer I could get all freaky about privacy and what the retailers know about me, but I actually hope that the eBook sellers are mining all of this data.  The apps know the time of day we read, they know if we read the book in one sitting or over months, and they know if we actually finish or not.  Seems like they are sitting on a really rich set of data that might be interesting to publishers and authors.  If it means more books I want to read and a strong publishing and book selling industry I’m all for it.

I’ve come to enjoy the convenience of eReaders.  I can bring lots of books with me, read without the lights on, keep notes, search within the books, and buy books wherever and whenever I want.  Kudos to booksellers for not falling into the same trap as the music industry.

eBookstores are really only just getting up to speed and will be a fascinating window into mobile commerce that should be heeded by all of those retailers trying to harvest business in that space.

2012.03 | NRF – AR – Payments & more

Stories of note from January:

NRF Big Show 2012 – As mentioned, I was at the NRF show this week.  Check out this video covering the underlying themes seen on the floor:  mobile,  consumer experience, convergence of channels, and inventory visibility.

Dominos Augmented Reality  – Dominos is using Augmented Reality to sell pizza in the UK.  Using the blippar app, users point their mobile’s camera at a billboard to see an overlay on their screen that they can touch for offers and ordering.

Microsoft Electronic Mirror – At CES this year, Microsoft was showing their version of a technology enhanced mirror concept.  I’ve seen a few of these so far, and perhaps they are a bit ahead of their time.  The Microsoft Kinect sure has some interesting possibilities for retail – particularly given it now has an official SDK – and eventually someone will work out a use case it in a retail setting that will add value to the customer experience.

Publix Cancels Curbside Pickup – US grocer Publix piloted a program for a year where customers can order groceries online and then have them brought to the car upon arrival to the store.   The program has been cancelled.  It’s an interesting idea, but I expect it is much simpler logistically to have customers come into the store to pick up their order or to have orders delivered to their home directly.

Intuit launching iPhone Payments in Canada – Staying ahead of Square, Intuit is expected to launch their GoPayment solution in Canada in the near future.  I’ve had requests from friends and clients about an equivalent to Square in Canada, so expect they will have some takers.  I will be most interested to see how they deal with EMV.  Both the Intuit and Square solution include card swiping modules that connect to the iPhone or iPad.  Those devices work fine with decades old MSR technology, but what about EMV and the requirement for reading chips from cards, and allowing entry of PINs- a requirement in Canada?

2012.02 | Mobile Tickets @ Cineplex

Last weekend I went to see The Adventures of Tintin.  I took the opportunity to try out Cineplex’s new mobile ticketing solution as part of this experience.  At the outset I wasn’t sure if this was the sort of solution I would use over again, but I came away quite impressed, and I expect I will be obtaining tickets this way in the future.  I am constantly baffled by the queues at my local theatre at the traditional ticket line.  I’ve always bypassed them by using the self service kiosks that they have for tickets.  If I can go even further and avoid purchase while in the theatre, I’m glad to do so.

Cineplex has offered their Print, Skip, and Scan option for some time.  Under this program, customers visit the Cineplex website, pick the film and venue and then print their tickets at home.  The tickets each have barcode that can be scanned for entry.  I have been a user of this solution many times, but have found that often my family decides to see a movie on the spur of the moment.  Given the time it takes to print out the 4-5 pages of tickets on my slow home printer, it’s actually faster in this instance to go to the theatre and just use the self serve kiosk to order and print tickets.  This new mobile solution lets me get my tickets on the way to the theatre.

Here’s how it works:

  • Customers with an iPhone or iPad can buy tickets right on the mobile device.  The Cineplex app can be downloaded from the iTunes store.  (The app is also available for Android and Blackberry users)
  • On first use customers add their Scene Loyalty card number in the app so they get full credit for purchases.
  • Using the app, which has great Flixster like information on the films showing, customers select the film, venue, showtime and quantity of tickets.
  • Customers enter their credit card number to pay.
  • The app provides the option to either print tickets at home (tickets sent via email) or use one’s mobile device to pick them up at the theatre.  I chose to use my mobile device.
  • The tickets quickly become available under a tab at the right side of the app labelled ‘tickets’.  Upon clicking the tickets tab, all tickets available to the customer are displayed on the mobile device.  Each ticket transaction has an associated barcode that is displayed on the screen.
  • Upon arrival at the theatre, customers visit a dedicated, stylish and very plainly identified kiosk to print their tickets.
  • After indicating on the kiosk that ticket printing is requested.  Customers open the cineplex app, select the tickets for the film they wish to use, and present the resulting barcode on their mobile to the plainly labelled scanner/imager on the kiosk.
  • Tickets for each individual attendee print immediately.  Customers take these tickets to the Cineplex associate who scans it and customers are ready to watch their movie.

What’s great about this solution?

  • It provides yet another channel for Cineplex customers to use.  Great retail today is about customer choice.  Customers can now buy tickets in yet another way – one that is very interesting to a significant segment of the movie viewing public – and one that is sure to appeal to Millenials who are increasingly accustomed to purchasing goods and services on their mobile devices.  While a new channel is available, all the old ones are still there.  If customers want to line up and buy their tickets from a person they can do so.  If they want to use a self service kiosk, they can do so.  If they want to order online and print at home, they can do so.  If they want to order online or on their mobile and print at the theatre they can do so.
  • It’s simple and builds upon the principles of purchase via their other channels.  It uses the same purchase flow and probably same web services for online ticket purchases.  This makes it a simple transition for current users.
  • The kiosk interface is very simple and the solution doesn’t make you wait. It’s very responsive.

What can improve?

  • Purchasing on the mobile and entering a whole credit card makes for some small text and less than optimal user interface situations.  That is probably more a function of what you can do with a mobile website today, and given that this is an initial iteration, I’m sure this will improve.  I expect that could also be improved if customers were allowed to tie a credit card number to their scene account so no credit card number need be entered.
  • The kiosk was a bit hard to find – placed by the arcade area.  Given all of the other technology in the front of a theatre, I can see that this would be a challenging decision for both logistical (power, data, floorspace) and flow (queueing, so many screens at front of the theatre) reasons.  Once you find the area, it is very plainly labeled and easy to understand.  Also, once customers that wish to use a solution like this know where the kiosk is, it becomes a moot point, as it will be easy for them to find.

On the whole, a very well done implementation in my mind.   I find it useful, and I applaud Cineplex for making the effort to install a solution of this kind.  I look forward to the evolution of this solution.

2012.01 | Mobile Coupons in 2011

It’s that time of year again.  January is the last month of the fiscal year for many retailers, and time for the NRF Big Show in NYC.  I’m attending this year, so if you happen to be at the show, come and say hello at the NCR booth (#415) !

Mobile Coupons Keep Coming – I read with interest a recent article indicating that Proctor & Gamble has partnered with mobeam on a solution to provide scanner readable mobile coupons to consumer mobile devices without the need to upgrade scanners already installed at stores.  My rudimentary understanding of the solution is that their technology allows mobile devices to communicate with store scanners by fooling them into thinking they are reading a regular barcode.

While Starbucks went the route of upgrading all of their scanners to models with imagers to accept mobile payments, that can be much more costly and challenging for a grocer with thousands and thousands of lanes, including many lanes in each store.  Having a solution that can read coupons without hardware upgrades makes the acceptance of mobile coupons a far simpler exercise.

I will be very interested to observe consumer acceptance of this idea.  One hurdle I’ve noticed on mobile tickets and payments is the awkward dance we all have when we get to a POS and want to use our mobile.  Neither the customer nor the cashier seems 100% certain of how the process should flow.  Do you hand the cashier the phone, do they point the scanner at the mobile?  Starbucks is still a bit awkward depending on the cashier.  Savvy cashiers place the scanner by the POS perpendicular to the cashier and customer so that customers can hold our own mobile device in front of it.

If a retailer has a handheld or single window vertical scanner, the process can be worked out as outlined above.  If they have a bioptic scanner or scanner-scale, things get very awkward as a customer either has to hand over their mobile or reach across various checkstand elements at the lane to expose the screen of their mobile.  In both cases, there is currently no indication to the customer when they should present their mobile device.   There should be a green light that indicates and is activated when it’s time to scan.  Not a blue light that’s on all the time.  I’ve placed my mobile in front of the scanner too soon from time to time.  These situations are certainly sub optimal.  Expect changes in checkstand and physical scanner design to accommodate mobile device to POS interface requirements.  The current checkstands are not designed for these transactions, and the process needs to be simplified so that my mom can do it if it is going to get to the mainstream.

The other issue with mobile coupons is dealing with multiple items.  If a customer is presenting one coupon, reading a barcode is no problem.  If a customer wants to present multiple coupons at one time, things becomes more complex.   Nobody wants to scan or hold up their mobile devices for multiple scans – especially if the customer has to search through to bring up different codes on their screen.  This will complicate the process and slow throughput at the front end of any business.  To simplify this process, it would be better to have a list of discounts on the screen and only one scan to the POS applies the coupons.  In my opinion, the best option is to allow for selection of offers and coupons online via mobile or web, and then scan a mobile device at the POS to identify the customer via a membership id number.  When that virtual loyalty card is scanned, discounts are applied automatically depending on purchases.

I see solutions like mobeam and the Starbucks mobile payment solutions as evolutionary and necessary solutions to move the POS forward.   These solutions allow early adopters to prove out the business case for using mobile devices at the POS and to establish the comfort level of the greater population with using mobile interfaced POS solutions.  Both of these solutions represent key stepping stones towards the ever elusive mobile wallet.

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