2012.11 Mobile Pizza | Produce Scanning | Pay with Square

Mobile Pizza – Love this new bluetooth fridge magnet to order Pizza from Red Tomato in UAE.  On receipt, customers sync the bluetooth magnet to their mobile phone once, and then whenever they want pizza, they press the button on the fridge and their favourite order is automatically placed for delivery to their home.  The customer gets a confirmation text and a pizza for dinner.  Hope the battery on that thing lasts for a while.  Great and novel idea.

Produce Image Scan – Toshiba TEC recently showed off a new scanning solution that enables scanning of produce with images in order to speed checkout.  The imagers can apparently recognize the produce held in front of them instead of the more traditional methods of requiring a barcode, PLU code or the use of a pick list on paper or electronically.

Interestingly while this is touted as a new solution, I have seen versions of this technology for some years now – most often by scale manufacturers.  Imaging is certainly much better than it was even a few years ago, so this technology must have improved since I looked at it last, but I still see some holes.

- Can it tell the difference between organic and traditional produce?  Not sure how that could possibly happen based on colour and texture.  Last I checked, there is a serious price delta between those two items – both in cost and price.   This sort of shortcoming is a real problem for North American supermarkets, as this is a potential revenue and margin loss at checkout in a very small margin business.

- Can it still tell the colour and texture through plastic packaging?  In most North American supermarkets, produce is not purchased without some sort of packaging – particularly if more than 1 item is purchased.  Might work, but I would want to see that.

- The spokesman says it will come with a database, but what does this do to store infrastructure?  Does it have to reside on every POS?  Is it large as it has images to compare on it?  How does it get updated after implementation.  Nobody has a complete database of produce, and if they did, it is bound to be large.  No store actually would have all produce meaning the full database would be larger than necessary.  To include only what is on hand in a store would require database management.  Even if the database was comprehensive, new products are always coming on the scene.  As items like the newly released Sumo come on the market, they will have to be carefully added to the database.  How does that happen?  One can’t just type in Sumo – 49 cents per pound with a PLU.  It would need to be a carefully orchestrated update.

- I hate to pick on their ergonomics, as this is obviously a demonstration, but those poor cashiers would eventually hurt themselves bending to pick up produce from a basket to scan and place in another basket.  It makes more sense to slide, or at least have a table at the right height to lift from.  There is also no scale, so pricing would only be per unit and not by the pound.  If this were to be implemented it would need to be part of a scanner -scale solution.

I think it’s a great idea and I would love to see it work, but there are a lot of kinks to be worked out before this thing hits the public – in North America in any case.

Pay with Square – Square recently rebranded their Card Case solution as Pay with Square.  The payment system allows for payment without removing a wallet or phone from the users pocket.  It’s based on geolocation.  Users are identified by the pictures on the point of sale device.  Beyond the rebranding, the app has been redesigned with a more functional interface, and to allow full functionality on both the Android and iPhone versions.  Still waiting for Canada, but expect EMV makes that unlikely.

2012.10 | Edible Packaging | Dining e-Tickets | OLED Lighting

Edible Packaging – While putting tea bags into the green bin is a real step forward from just dumping them into the garbage, we may be able to avoid the waste issue altogether in the future with new dissolvable materials that allow us to consume packaging along with products.

Monosol has designed tasteless water soluble packets of hot chocolate, fruit drink and oatmeal. They look exactly like the familiar plastic packets we know today. Drop one of these packets of product in water, wait for it to dissolve and consume. With this technology one could avoid the waste and recycle cycle completely.

Another angle on the same idea, Wiki Cells edible membrane uses food particles connected “by electrostatic charges to each other and to a small amount of natural polymer” to put a casing around food. As an example, they have yogurt inside an edible membrane in the manner of a parmesan or goat cheese kind of skin. To consume, one cuts through the skin to access the interior and then one can eat the ‘rind’ or ‘peel’ as well.  If you happen to be in Paris, you could try it out at the Lab Store Paris.

This may take some time to catch on with consumers and get past their health concerns, but could result in real waste savings on many fronts.

Dining e-Tickets – As restaurants work on slim margins rendering no-shows as a big hit to the bottom line, some restaurants are moving away from reservations to e-ticketing schemes. Under this setup, potential diners buy tickets for a time slot at a restaurant – just like a theatre performance. If they don’t show, the restaurant is not out profit for the night as the tickets are non-refundable. Like theatre or sports events, perhaps we can expect potential scalping, online trading systems.  There are also  potentially new revenue streams for operators  like OpenTable.

OLED lighting – Advances in OLED lighting provide some potentially incredible impacts on design of stores and technology in future. Check out the article and incredible video of an Audi concept vehicle to get the full effect.

direct video link

2012.09 | Lytro & Future Photography

If you haven’t heard of it yet, the Light Field Camera  recently released by Lytro is certainly worthy of consideration for any professional involved in technology solely because of its uniqueness.

The Lytro camera uses a completely different sort of sensor from those used in current digital cameras to capture images. This sensor captures light from various angles and means that there is no need to focus a camera lens at time of image capture. Images are captured and the focus and other settings are adjusted by downloading images and tweaking them with software. Check out an example below. Click to focus on an area, double click to zoom.

See more examples.

This makes possible or simplifies an incredible range of ideas applicable to retail.

Consider a few quick examples:

  • Interactive experience – Online interactive websites or in store screens with photos of a store interior that can zoom and focus when you point to certain areas of the image. This could provide a unique and detailed online shopping experience more akin to a bricks and mortar experience where that is desirable.
  • Unique Offers / Experiences / Marketing – Given the ability to refocus images on the fly, there are vast opportunities for creative uses to engage customers in contests, offers, new product unveilings and the like.
  • Security – Security cameras that are always in focus around store sites. This could ease the job of security staff and make real the hilarious ‘let’s enhance’ scenes of fame in movies and TV.
  • Scanning – Using light field cameras could make scanning with cameras at point of sale faster than current bar code scanning technologies by recognizing multiple items at once. It could even mean the end of barcodes. With faster recognition, we could finally leave 1d and even 2d barcode symbologies behind with more sophisticated recognition algorithms as long as an easily updated database and identification protocol is in place. Based on current software and processing power, this could be some way off.

While the technology is still in its rudimentary form, with first gen cameras that are glorified squared off lens telescopes, and images that take a minute to fully process on high end processors, the idea has still ignited a great deal of interest in tech circles. This sort of technology shift could take ‘point and shoot’ photography to a new level of simplicity. It could rank up there with Kodak bringing photography to the masses, or Polaroid instant photography, but with the expanded reach of photography today, its applications are potentially even more widespread.

2012.08 | Interactive Screens – not Kiosks

Interactive kiosk solutions have been a part of retail for as long as someone was able to stick a computer in a box.  While mobile is definitely a phenomenon in retail, we are far from saturation on kiosks as self service solutions.   In fact, there has never been a better time to consider a self service kiosk solution – and those solutions don’t have to be limited to a little square screen on a stick.

The technology options available to power these solutions has improved tremendously and there are an increasingly wide range of form factors, as well as peripherals of all sorts to serve pretty much any market or need imaginable.    In fact, I would suggest that the use of the term kiosk is outdated.  It refers to that little square screen on a stick or in a box from a decade ago.

The days of a cobwebbed kiosk in the corner are gone, and new technology means a new generation of interaction in sites.  Consider technology and societal changes that make these new interactions possible:

Larger format screens – 50 and 60″ LCD devices are now available for the cost of a regular old 15″ solution from a number of  years ago.     This reduced cost makes it more affordable to implement a kiosk that has some visual appeal, lots of space for visual elements, and more easily blends into the customer experience in the store than the technology of years gone by. Projection options are also finding their way into the mainstream – meaning a whole new opportunity for engagement and new placements of interactive experiences.

Increased Use of Touch –  - increased availability of touch interfaces means more people are comfortable with them.  If you think back just a few years, there was far less use of touch interfaces.  The release of iDevices, touch on Blackberries and various tablets and eReaders means that a comfort level has grown that was not there before.  This increases the willingness and comfort of the average consumer to interface with a touch system.

Pervasive Technology – There is now a generation of young adults who have never lived without mobile phones or the internet.  Where for many years one saw customers saying they “don’t want to use that thing” or “I want to talk to a person”, there is a whole new generation of shoppers are hungry for different touchpoints and shopping experiences.

What works with interactive kiosk experiences?

With the technology to enable incredible interactive experiences in any place where stores can exist, it is important to consider what experience is being provided.  I have seen a number of interactive experiences requested over the years, and there are a few learnings I can pass on.

1.  Buy-in – If an interactive experience in a retail setting is going to work, then all stakeholders have to be invested in it. If executives, store management or store staff don’t believe in the solution then it will fail.    Any half-hearted solution will not work.  It is like any other group initiative.  Without the conscious involvement, understanding and enthusiasm from the team, whatever solution you have will not work.  It will be doomed from the start.

2. Functionality – The solution has to have a benefit to all who use it.  A benefit for the user, the store staff and the business in general.  For the customer it could be helping them avoid a line, or get help without having to ask a staff member.  For the store staff, it could help them with capacity. For the business, it can keep customers in the store instead of leaving, it could upsell them, it could give them an experience that will keep them as a long term customer.

As an additional detail, my experience has been that transactional systems tend to get more use than informational ones.  Where some customers may be interested in reading product information in great details, there is greater usage and more direct measurable benefit to the business when someone wants to buy something and can do so directly on the solution.

If customers can look at product information, that’s great, but if they can buy the product and have it sent to their home, they don’t need to consider a second interaction.  They can do it on the spot.   Bottom line in my opinion – no ROI – no interactive solution.  If it isn’t driving business, it’s taking up space.  Don’t implement technology for its own sake.

As a personal aside please don’t waste time with the following:

  • e-flyers – I’d like someone to show me how this pays off.  Why would I scroll through an e-flyer at a screen in a store?  I will do it at home, but that is a different user experience.  It is always faster to scan through a paper one in a store, users have no audience waiting to use the unit, and often the paper flyers are sitting in a giant pile right next to the screen.
  • games – I’ve never understood why I would want to play a game on a screen in a store or how that would benefit a retailer. I’m also annoying others who may want to use the screen to find a product.  Exception – if it’s a contest where I get a discount and it’s quick.
  • in store wayfinding – Nobody trusts these in stores anymore.  In a small store there is no need for them.  In a large store who keeps this updated?  Stores change around so much, and I doubt that planograms are updated and automatically interfaced.  It can also take longer to scroll through than just walk through the store.  Exception 1 – if there is an automated interface to constantly updated planogram system. Exception 2 – if there is a version that works with your mobile device Meijer Findit – maybe.  Just put stuff where we can find it.

Based on what I’ve seen, these items are add-ons designed to flesh out a solution, but it never feels useful or natural to me, and drives out more value more than it adds.

3.  User Experience – If the customer doesn’t at least find the experience useful, they won’t use the screen again.  I’m not a UI designer myself, but self service best practices should be followed that suit the application, and having an experienced consultant design your interface is well worth the investment.

Examples of best practices include using as few screens as possible to get a user to completion of their task, using buttons and text that are easy to see and read, and minimize and simplify data entry unless absolutely necessary – especially duplicate requests.  Providing a simple and convenient experience will draw them in and bring them back.

4.  Ongoing Support – If the solution isn’t working, it’s not getting used.  If it’s not getting used, the benefits above are not being realized.  If people see it not getting used, it will be used even less until it is completely ignored, negating the initial intention of having the solution at all.  Ongoing support means making sure the hardware is working to it’s full potential.  No failed peripherals, or a paper sign tacked on it saying out of order.  That can’t happen.

Just as importantly, content must be accurate and updated where relevant.  If a kiosk never changes, unless it fulfills a very specific and key function it will die.  Retailers would never consider leaving their stores the same through seasons – they are always updated with fresh ideas, programs and products.  Interactive solutions must be part of any store updates – the graphics, the videos, the interactions must all keep pace.  People are always engaged with new content – we all know this.  Make sure the solutions are constantly updated to pull people in.

This is a key element that gets missed.  Project teams move to the next new thing, funding is pulled to other new projects, and solutions die.  Don’t let that happen.

5.  One Brand Experience - Retailers understand that providing a seamless single experience to retailers across all parts of the business makes it easier for consumers to buy, which means more sales.  Now that barriers are being removed web stores and brick and mortar stores, allowing returns across the banner, for example, customers are expecting this barrier removal to continue across all interface points.  As each channel becomes easier to use, customers are likely to try out the new ones.  If a customer considers an interactive screen in a shopping centre to be a window into their brand experience, they are increasingly likely to use it.  It’s no longer a separate thing – using this interactive solution should be part a consistent brand  experience.  Try as much as possible to make that experience consistent and targeted to those consumers as much as possible.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are key elements to making a solution really and truly work for the customers and the retailer.

Where is this going?

There is no way to know where the future takes us, but here are a few of my thoughts on the future of interactive screens – hitherto known as kiosks:

Every screen is interactive – and it should be.  Currently there is lots of digital signage out there, but the communication is only one way.  It is showing you messages and is not open for input.  The millennial cohort and younger generations are growing up with interactive screens.  Not having input doesn’t make sense to them.  Expect walls of digital posters in stores to be enabled for interactivity in the future.  During the slow hours of the day, they show brand and product messaging.  At busy times, they can be used to engage customers on selecting their best mobile plan, finding out their balance, or contacting a service rep.

Every interaction is personal - and it should be.  Future interactions should be filtered to get to the point for specific clients.  Allowing customers to identify themselves via loyalty cards or some other simple format means that the messaging and interactions can be customized.  This can minimize screens and touches and provide a streamlined experience.  It could mean language, recognizing services or products the customer has purchased or identified to provide assistance or upsell on them, offers specific to that customer, or even providing access to profiles so that customers can validate how they want to be dealt with.

Screens can be anywhere on any surface in any place.  Large screens are pervasive, but expect projection and other technologies to start to show up as cost drops and brightness increases.  They can cover large or irregular areas, they can provide big screen surface with a small device, and they provide flexible solution options. Starbucks had a good example of this in Toronto and Vancouver last year.

Screens will interact with each other.  Everyone knows we have screens in our pocket, but some content works better in a larger format.  It is technically possible to leverage both together in a store environment in myriad different ways.  Why not have a pre-ordering menu on a mobile device to stage an order that is passed to an in store device to order?  Why not provide a message that an order is ready to a mobile device while customers wait in the store?  Why not enable selection of items for purchase of out of stock items instore from the website, and then complete the payment transaction on the small mobile screen for privacy and security?  As the general public matures technically and they see benefits, these interactions will catch on.

Once again, I think the time has passed to call these interactive kiosks.  Mobile is huge for reatil. Tablets are huge for retail as well, and some think these persona devices signal the end of kiosks, but interactive screens in stores, shopping centres, or wherever you wish already are and will continue to play a tremendous role in the retail ecosystem.

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