2013.10 | Customs Kiosk | Starbucks Square Issues

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Canada Customs Self Service – After traveling out of the country recently, I had the opportunity to use Canada Border Services Automated Border Clearance solution in place at Pearson Airport and Vancouver Airports.

The system works very similarly to the original method used in speaking to an agent.    Canadians coming home to Canada fill in the customs form by hand on the plane as usual, and proceed to the customs area at the airport.   Instead of proceeding to an agent, the handlers in the area will ask you if you wish to leverage self service.   If you opt to use the kiosks, you approach, select your language, and follow the instructions on the screen.  Users insert a completed customs form in the slot below the screen, and then scan your passport(s).  The kiosk will categorize travelers with a code indicating whether you may proceed, or speak to an agent.  Then a printed copy of the populated form with the code as a watermark over the form is produced.  In my case, I had indicated I had nuts with me, which required intervention, and had to speak to an agent who passed me through quickly on my way.

While having to speak to the agent after using the kiosk was a bit frustrating, the vast majority of the times I cross the border I would have had no issue at all.  The kiosks are very simple to use, they have a huge green light at the top indicating availability and instructions are shown simply and on screen.  About the only criticism I can make is that it’s a waste of paper to print out a copy of the form which is already a waste of paper.  Moving towards electronic interfaces in these situations will take time, and this is a wonderful step towards simplifying this much loved process.

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Starbucks Square Issues - Fast Company recently reported on issues that Starbucks has experienced around implementing the acceptance of payments via Square Wallet.  The fundamental issue appears to be a challenge with communicating the ability to accept Square Wallet at Starbucks at their outlets.  I read this article with a great deal of interest.  I’ve been part of numerous deployments in retail and there are so many opportunities for a deployment with a great concept to go awry.

In order to justify a change to a retail solution, there have to be benefits:

First, there must be a benefit to the retailers’ customers.  At first glance, that appears to be missing.  At present, the benefit of using Square over the standard Starbucks mobile app is a bit of a puzzler.  If they use Square Wallet, customers don’t get to count purchases toward future free beverages as part of the Starbucks loyalty program.  That is actually a DIS-incentive to use Square Wallet.  If Starbucks want to drive usage, they should change that.

Second, there must also be a benefit to the retailer.  I don’t see a real benefit to Starbucks beyond the ability to accept another payment method.  It would seem that drawing additional traffic with additional payment options would not be a key driver at stores with long lines in place most of the time.  In fact, throughput would be more of an issue, and the acceptance of Square as portrayed in the article is actually a hindrance to throughput.

Hopefully there is more to this solution than meets the eye.  It would seem logical to assume that getting the Square Wallet in place at Starbucks is to lay the foundation for the geolocation version of Square Wallet which would allow tendering without presenting a mobile device at all.  That would provide benefits for both the Starbucks and their customers.

2012.41 | New Ways of Retailing with Tech

googleshoppingGoogle Shopping –  It seems almost everyone is expanding their retail presence, making it possible to buy anything, anywhere, and anytime.  In addition to Google Play –  Google’s online store for android apps, ebooks, movies and music, consumers can also visit Google Shopping – a shopping portal apparently on the rise.

Consumers have another shopping channel and retailers have another confusing choice to make around partnering with Goliaths like Google.  Do retailers rely on Google to point clients to them for free, pay with adwords, or leverage a sponsorship with Google Shopping?  Do they post an enhanced catalog on Google Catalogs?  Increasingly retailers lean towards curation of goods and services to provide differentiation.  Does Google take away some of that differentiation with top 10 lists and 360 degree views?  Perhaps, but it could potentially drive more traffic in the near term.

PepsPassbook Promo – While still underwhelming and in need of expansion, Apple’s Passbook is probably the best mobile offer/ticket/giftcard platform out there by potential user count and likelihood of uptake by consumers.  Consmr recently offered a reasonable bribe to new users.  Download Consmr, and receive a Passbook ‘coupon’ for a free Pepsi Max redeemable at Kum & Go stores.

This is the first notable campaign to use Passbook to meet my notice.  Getting that large base of users to try a coupon via Passbook can only help expand the footprint.  There will certainly be lessons to learn, as this is not nearly as simple as it appears from the perspective of those offering the free Pepsi Max

Hopefully this Passbook offer only provides a one time only coupon code that is a unique code.  If it doesn’t, all the user has to do is take a screen capture of the coupon (It’s as simple as pressing the power button and then home button and then waitning for the flash on iOS.  Swipe your hand across the screen on newer Samsung Android for the same result.) and then use it again…and again…and again.  Just because coupons are electronic doesn’t make them less subject to fraud.  In fact, a user could send out that coupon to all of their friends in seconds – negating the intent of the offer as only one person had to download the Consmr app to get the coupon.  Beyond a unique coupon code for each user, retailers can also tie coupons to unique identifiers as part of a loyalty program to ensure redemption matches the expectations of those making the offer.  Retailers and marketers have to be sure the target audience AND the technology are all considered or losses and campaign failures can result.

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Square GiftcardsSquare is now offering electronic gifts as part of their service.  Square Wallet Users can give and receive credits for businesses that use their payment systems.  This is an intelligent and logical progression of the payments system and provides another potential expansion point as everyone’s mom joins Square to try to give their grown techie offspring a free coffee or book.

The article says they are waiting on Square giftcards for Canada.  Seeing as we don’t have Square Wallet here today and won’t until 2013, that seems a valid point.

2012.34 | Square Canada | Watch2Pay | Passbook Canada

Square Canada – Square is now available in Canada.  Now small businesses in Canada who want to take credit cards or operate a very simple cash register on an iOS device can take advantage of the Square offer.  Can’t wait to see which Canadian businesses show up on their Canadian directory of users.   Should change payments in Canada as we know them if they use Pay with Square. [Interesting point - turns out they are just using their MSR dongle and not a chip and pin solution to read the card.  Not ideal in Canada where EMV is the norm, as retailers bear the risk of an MSR (non chip) transaction!]

Watch2Pay – Watch2Pay, which sounds a bit like a wig for your watch, offers an NFC enabled watch.  Basically, one purchases a watch and it includes a PayPass NFC enabled Mastercard as well as a MasterCard Watch Card.  The Watch Card looks very much like an old school SIM card but is actually an NFC chip.Plug the Watch Card in the back of the watch, and you can use your snazzy new watch to pay anywhere Mastercard PayPass enabled payments are available. Watch2Pay is currently available in the UK and Poland, and appears to be coming soon to the US and Russia.

Passbook Canada – As an iOS user, I’ve been using Passbook where I have had the opportunity – mainly as a Starbucks customer. So far in Canada,  Cineplex, Starbucks, Porter Airlines, Canada’s Wonderland, Living Social, Valpak Coupons and Air Canada have released apps that support Passbook.    If you know of more, highlight them in the comments.  I’m also interested to hear experiences with using Passbook in Canada.

While it works as a place to keep your loyalty cards and tickets, I don’t find that Passbook is working for me.  Tickets and cards are supposed to be easily accessible via alerts based on your proximity to where they would be used, avoiding the need to unlock your mobile, open an app and find the applicable item.  So far, it’s been a mixed bag on usability and functionality.   I have another post in the works where I’ll share my limited experience with Passbook.  For now, let’s say I agree with Rene at iMore on Passbook.

2012.13 | iPad as Point of Sale Device

Given the ubiquity of the iPad, the adoration of the general public of the device, and my own personal ongoing interest and use of this device, consideration of using an iPad as a point of sale solution is a worthy point of discussion. After all, the word of our current age is innovation – we should embrace potential change such as this, and see where it may lead us. In the end, like every other solution in retail or otherwise, it’s about ROI, and if the iPad can deliver; why not?

As someone who has had an iPad since it was possible to get one and who has logged many a mile on it, it is a dream device for me personally. Convenient, simple, and incredibly multi-faceted, I use it every day and constantly. One of the most entertaining things about having an iPad is finding new uses for it and new apps to try.

For those of us who embrace it, it should come as no surprise that retailers are experimenting with it – evaluating different applications and apps in the store. There are many offerings that are fundamentally predicated on using an iPad as a POS: Square, Revel, Paypal, and there is an upcoming NCR solution to be released in June. (And yes, for full disclosure, I’m an NCR employee)

While payment processing is certainly a key element of the decision for these solutions, let’s set that aside for the moment and consider iPad from a hardware perspective. As much as we all want to skip the whole question and play with apps, the hardware should be fully considered from a usability and ROI perspective. In some ways the iPad is a hardware platform that can enable solutions we have dreamed about for years; in others it falls short.

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The Positives:

Hardware Cost – iPad 2 units are now available at reduced rates, and can be had for as low as $419. Given that a retail hardened POS terminal is more like $800 to $1,000, the up front purchase price is certainly attractive – particularly for a small business. Keep in mind that a stand will also be necessary which will add $100 to $200 to the cost depending on the model and type, but it’s still quite affordable to obtain.

Displays – Because iPad is put out in such volume and has the latest technology, they have vibrant bright screens. The touchscreen is capacitive (my option of choice), and does not require calibration. In a nutshell, the touch display looks great and they work very well.

Durability – iPad is made for the consumer market – notorious for hard usage. For general use in a specialty or relatively clean and simple QSR environment, it will suffice as well. While I had initial misgivings about its durability, my experience with retailers is that it has lasted better than anticipated in real world retail environments. It’s definitely getting use and doing well.

Small Footprint – As you can see from pictures of the unit, it requires little space on a counter and can provide just about the smallest footprint possible; especially if you want to go full urban hipster mode with no receipt printer or cash drawer.

Software Updates – While the focus is on hardware, the apple ecosystem is hard to ignore as a point of the solution. Depending on the application used, software updates can be very simple even for the novice user. If the solution is cloud based, users would not have to do anything other than perhaps change the address to which their browser is pointing. For app based users, the app store is a familiar interface, and updating apps is a relatively simple matter.

Network – Cloud based offerings are a tremendous area of growth and I embrace them myself. I use Dropbox, iCloud and more. The challenge with a retail business is that when these services are down, the business is down. In the past I would have expressed concern about this, but reliability of these services is quite high and improving. Data centers like Apples and Amazons make this possible.

Extensibility – The iPad is a great platform to add apps as discussed. Many retailers are using the iPad for manager’s tools, inventory, and more. Why not add point of sale capability to the units?

On the whole, the iPad represents a tremendously viable point of sale platform for the right environment, subject to the availability of apps and payment processing interfaces to suit retailer and customer needs.

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The Negatives:

Cost – While the iPad is slightly cheaper to obtain, the jury is out on how long they last. I’ve worked with some retailers who have used notebooks in retail environments for point of sale or sales tools. They lasted about 3 years. While you could argue that a user could just throw the unit out and buy another one, remember that retail hardened POS terminals are designed to last 7-10 years, and I’ve seen some last much longer. There are retailers running DOS because it’s working just fine. Also, while the hardened units are slightly more expensive, they do allow for simple modular repair, dual hard drive capability, remote supportability, software lockdown and more.

Displays - The iPad screen looks bright, but if I had come out to retailers and told them I had the best new point of sale solution in the world and it has a 9.7 inch screen, I would have been laughed out the door – and rightfully so. The screens are a bit small for a point of sale application in my experience. I’ve seen 12″ work well, and most retailers seem to think 15″ provides a good combination of real estate and visibility for the client and the retail associate. Some also accept 17″ displays, but it depends on the environment and the point of sale platform. The reflection on the iPad display can be difficult to read in brightly lit retail environments – particularly with the new intense lighting in some stores.

Durability – The consumer market is one thing, but the whole gamut of retail is another. While the iPads have been lasting well to date, and I’m sure they will do so, they haven’t yet had to deal with 7-10 years of dust. They haven’t dealt spills of a full drinks and survived (I have a friend who left an iPad outside in the rain over night; sadly it could not be resuscitated.) They are not made to deal with the head of direct sunlight – a challenge in some glassed in environments. (if you’ve ever used one outside in the sun, you may have experienced the automatic shutdown). While the iPads work very very well, they may be less able to accommodate more rugged requirements like DIY warehouse stores and intense QSR environments.

Small Footprint – While the iPad itself is smaller, if you have to use a cash drawer, printer and scanner, you won’t save that much real estate. Also note that the peripherals are effectively the same as those used on a regular point of sale device today, though some others have come out. I expect there will be some answers around this.

Batteries - One thing they never show in the pictures of these solutions is the power cord – it doesn’t look as pretty without the cable plugged in. The batteries do last a long time, but the units will always be on in a retail environment. Some solutions provide a battery pack which adds some battery life, but wherever there are batteries, there are people forgetting to charge them. It will be important to include a reminder to charge overnight – perhaps a dock – and to always keep a cord on hand.

Software Providers – Another brief comment on software. While Square and Paypal are both huge names right now, they are effectively offering a POS solution as a loss leader for payments processing. That means that retailers are locked into a POS solution based on their payments module. Retailers won’t care about this until they realize that to move they will have to update all of their inventory on to another system. This solution model is working very well today, and it may very well continue to do so and I hope it does. I think it can work, but it is a risk to consider. Retailers are in business for the long haul, and well as they have done, this is a new business model with relatively new players.

Chip and Pin – I’ve seen some interesting solutions to deal with Chip and Pin (using a pin pad to enter a code for card payments – we do that here in Canada) on iPod touch units with sleds. In America, they can use dongles in the headphone jack of the iPad, or in the bottom port, but in Canada that does not fly. Without Chip and Pin, this thing is a non-starter in the Canadian environment. There needs to be integration to a pin pad solution, but I’m not yet aware of one. Most pinpads are currently on RS-232 (sorry no ports on iPad), or on IP – that might work. Someone has to make that work before this can happen in Canada. Let me know if you have heard of any!

Solution Roadmap – iPad and all iDevices are on notoriously short roadmaps. Seen an iPod Classic lately? Didn’t think so. As a consumer device, it is entirely Apple’s prerogative to release new units every year – to change the size – to max out the screen resolution, to change the IOS platform, to add and remove ports and more – all at their whim. This may be fine, but it may start to impact a user that has an older unit. Will they be forced to upgrade because of changing specs? Will they have to source a different mount, a different payment device, a different peripheral at short notice as the units change every year?

Network – iPad only uses wifi. While this may not be a problem for some retailers, others are concerned about providing access to wifi networks in their businesses. I’ve also found that while I’ve had some rock solid experiences with wifi, some of my apple products will constantly lose connectivity with my wifi network, and the only way to fix it is to reset the router/modem. It’s a small issue, but worth thinking about.

I point out these issues not to rail against the iPad, but to point out potential obstacles. Sometimes in the rush towards new technology, these items can be overlooked. Better to have the issues in mind when looking to implement and consider them carefully prior to moving forward to ensure the best possible customer and store staff experience possible.

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On the whole, the potential of the iPad as a retail device is incredible. The millions sold are a testament to the strength of the iPad, and the following behind it.
 
In my opinion, the iPad will see a great deal of use as the main point of sale device in a boutique independent environment to start. It lacks some of the power and performance needed by top tier retailers – particularly given their investment in complex and sophisticated point of sale, inventory, and ERP solutions that can’t be changed at a moment’s notice. However, as point of sale platforms continue to progress, you can expect to see those platforms leverage the iPad in some way. iPad or not, the point of sale device is definitely changing.

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.

2011.42 | How Square’s Card Case Works

I was intrigued by the recent release of the Card Case App from Square.  Unlike the other mobile payment apps that involve tapping a mobile device or card on a contactless reader, Card Case attempts to remove the tender process from a transaction as much as possible.  While the mobile device has to be on their person, there is no need to pull out a wallet or a phone to complete a transaction.

Here’s how it works:

  • Users connect a current credit card to a registered account with Square that includes all of their personal information including a photo of themselves.
  • Users install the Card Case App on their iPhone or Android device.
  • Users can search out local businesses where they shop directly on the app on their mobile device.
  • Users can turn on ‘Always Auto Open Tab’ for merchants they frequent to enable purchases ‘over the air’.
  • When users are within a store where they have activated this ‘Always Auto Open Tab’ with their phone, the proximity of their mobile device to the store point of sale device causes their name and image to show on a list on the screen of the point of sale unit.
  • When a user wishes to complete a transaction, the user tells the cashier to put it on their tab, using their own name to identify themselves.
  • The cashier consults the point of sale device and identifies the user by their name and image that shows on the point of sale device.
  • The cashier selects that user, and the transaction is completed.
  • An eReceipt is provided to the customer via Square.

This payment solution is really a very clever way of getting away from the traditional pass of a card or currency from a customer to a retailer.  I would personally love this to become a standard payment.  I would use it in a second if it was available in my area.

Let’s consider some of the potential issues around this particular solution, to understand if it could become mainstream.

  • Integration Effort – Retailers must register with Square to accept payments via the Card Case solution.  Fees are low at 2.75% (3.5% with a card swipe), and make a lot of sense for smaller retailers, as they can replace a potentially more costly ‘traditional’ solution.  However, if we consider tier 1 and tier 2  chain merchants with significant scale, they already leverage current payment processing platforms.  Using Square is an additional payment scheme that has to be accommodated at a store.  Additional schemes mean additional cost and effort to implement and support.  They mean additional training for store staff.  They mean integration to current point of sale software platforms.  While retailers accommodate as many schemes as they can to suit their customer base, there is only so much complexity that can be handled.  Verdict: For the time being, I expect this to be more of a neighbourhood merchant solution, though inevitably someone will give it a try.
  • Connectivity – A mobile payment scheme like this assumes connectivity by default.  If either the user or the merchant loses connectivity for any reason, the mechanism to accept a payment is unavailable.  While connectivity is definitely improving across the board, it is by no means foolproof.  Most top tier retailers require a solution with very high uptime or at least some significant redundancy. Mobile signals can be dicey in some locations, no matter what carrier or device you use, there is a chance that in some locations it just won’t work.  Verdict: Given connectivity today, mileage will vary by location.  Some sites in subways or in the basements of highrises may not be able to use it at all.  This technical challenge will make it challenging for the solution to become common.
  • Errors & Scale -  In large cities or in very busy sites, there may be so many users in proximity to the store that the lists could become unmanageable.  In busy situations, it is also possible for cashiers to accidentally select the wrong user given many more to choose from.  Verdict: While unlikely that there will be so many users using the service at present, given significant population density and the busy nature of some urban businesses, popularity of the solution could render it more difficult to use for the cashiers.  I’m sure that issue could be dealt with.
  • Fraud & Security – While paying by name and image may be simple, streamlined, and civilized, it relies heavily upon a cashier’s personal discretion.  In the case of a small neighbourhood merchant, that may work just fine.  When you are a huge multinational retail organization with tens of thousands of employees across the country, the continent or the world, it’s a different story.  No matter how carefully employees are vetted, there are always bad apples. Based on current information, there is no mechanism beyond a cashier login log to discourage cashiers from assigning a charge without the permission of the user.  To take it a step further, users could be charged without even being in the store.  A user standing near a store could be charged by a cashier without any knowledge whatsoever.  While the user would inevitably be tipped off by an ereceipt, and the user would obviously only activate tabs at sites they trusted, security is still a valid concern.  Verdict: The sort of trust required for this sort of solution means it will have to stay small scale with trusted retailers.  If it expands to larger retailers, either users won’t turn on the automatic tab option, or there will be more fraudulent charges than it is worth.

I doubt that the intent of the automatic open tab functionality was to have it leveraged in a large scale retail implementation at all.  The trust requirement to make this solution work is a fundamental flaw for larger players, but it’s a novel idea all the same, and I hope it is successful enough that I can try it locally.

2011.27 | Getting it all Online

The Future of Mobile Wallets - I’ve been hearing that the NFC mobile wallet will be the new reality any time now since about 2006.  With the inertia behind mobile phones, maybe the time has finally come in 2011/2012.  Some parties have some high hopes, according to the nifty infographics after the jump.  There is also some great information on the characteristics of the offerings put forth by the mainstream processors and carriers, though Square and Paypal were strangely absent.

eGifting at Starbucks – A recent update to Starbucks’ mobile app allows users to send a virtual gift card to another Starbucks card holder, as they can add to other card holders’ balances directly from their mobile.  The plastic gift cards that we throw out have been eliminated for mutual lovers of Starbucks.   Effectively Starbucks has deployed the first practical and widely distributed ‘complete’ electronic wallet.  Card holders with the mobile app can use the app at the POS to pay, and can now pass value to another user.  I’ve actually used my Starbucks card as a virtual currency already.  Last year a friend who owed me $100 and wasn’t able to be in my locale just put a credit on my Starbucks card.  It was cheaper than Paypal, and I was going to spend it at Starbucks eventually.  Who needs Bitcoin?  We can use Starbuck$.

NFC Cash Transfers on Android  - Not to be outdone, and with uncanny timing, Paypal has announced that they have enabled wireless cash transfers from one Android phone to another via NFC.  Very cool if you have a Samsung Nexus S.  Otherwise, we’ll wait on that to find it’s way to other platforms!

Getting Offline Data Online - Online presence isn’t the best at Canadian retailers, and there are many reasons and obstacles that make that so.  A recent post on Retail Technology Blog highlights a new service from Wishpond that allows retailers to get their product data and prices online so that consumers can find the right stuff at the best prices nearby when they do their research.  My search for Asics Shoes, which can be hard to find around my neighbourhood brought up some good options.  I’ve seen some similar sites in the past, including flit.com, and like.com, which allows you to search by color, style and more.

While this is a boon for consumers to find what they are looking for, and helps retailers to get their stuff out there, it will be interesting to see what this sort of price transparency does for retailers.  I’m reminded of MySupermarket in the UK that allows shoppers to compare a full basket to find the best prices based on the big stores in their area.  This will make pricing difficult.  Look to the ability to provide individual pricing and offers to attack competition for bargain hunters in the future.  Understanding what customers want before they search for it will be the next frontier.

2011.20 | Square = Payments + Filing Cabinet?

Making payments via a mobile phone is not technically difficult.  What is difficult is making those payments as simple and ubiquitous as swiping a payment card at a point of sale.  

I reviewed all of the points needed to make a mobile wallet work 2 years ago, and we’re still waiting for the breakthrough.  (If we finally get NFC on iPhone 4S in September or on a new Blackberry – we may finally get a version of mobile wallet breakthrough courtesy of Apple trying to get a stranglehold on payments leveraging iTunes.)

Solutions like Square are really pushing the envelope, and that is great for the payments and technology industries.  It’s easy to get caught up in every day work and become comfortable and to say some things are just not possible.   

Sometimes it takes a new entrant who actually tries to do something obvious but so monolithic nobody wanted to tackle it to move a solution along.  While Square was originally envisioned as a personal or small business payment system, their latest attempts at installations in a couple of stores in New York City point to them attempting to move this sort of mobile payment system up the food chain to bonafide small businesses.

What is really interesting about the Square solution is not just the payment side, which has been languishing for many years now and will not be solved without bridging the points I made 2 years ago, but another attempt at leveraging e-receipts on the solution.  I have long been a proponent for at least shortening, and ideally eliminating paper receipts.  I pick up dozens of receipts in a week – just buying coffee or a juice, picking up a greeting card; you name it.   Let’s not mention big ticket purchases or the arm length tapes from grocery stores.  I scan significant receipts onto my PC or Evernote for filing and immediately recycle.  Who can keep track of all of the receipts, and is it worth it?  What Square attempts to do is leverage the integration of payment and mobile to keep a wallet full of those receipts on the customer’s mobile device, skipping the scan and file step.  The solution provides a benefit to both customer and retailer.  The customer gets a record of all of their purchases, and the retailer effectively gets a built in loyalty tracking system.  But when you think about it, what’s the benefit of knowing how many coffees or bagels you purchased to a client?  It’s not incredibly helpful.  Keeping the receipts for the last 10 visits to the local superstore where I bought a pair of pants that don’t fit my daughter that I need to return- that is much more helpful. 

So how do you get a receipt repository that would scale?  There are certainly a number of e-receipt solutions out there.  The problem is around getting some level of scale and a common platform people will use and trust. 

My contention is that the organizations best positioned to do such a thing would be the credit card companies.  The credit card companies are well known, and trusted with financial data.   The data for the transaction total is already passed to them and their servers.  It would be challenging, but much less difficult to add a transaction number or details to the data string sent back to the credit card company via the payment terminals.  While not all clients would use such a service, even a percentage of customer using e-receipts should drive significant cost savings in paper usage and returns fraud.  Given all of the negative press around credit card processors, expanding their business in a new direction to drive revenue from either retailers or consumers for a useful service.

Moving to a receipt free society is a significant challenge, but at least some organizations are trying.  The cash registers (ECR’s in fact) are not gone from the stores where Square is being tested and the first attempts at using were not very smooth – after all it’s a new technology and we should hesitate to trust cellular coverage so deeply to complete a transaction at present.  The wallet as receipt holder is still not there yet, and there are many, many operational hurdles that I haven’t even mentioned, but it continues to become more and more realistic to imagine.

2011.18 | Sizing Booth, Mobile Payment, Social Media Vending

mybestfit – A mall near you may soon be featuring a booth that allows you to quickly know your size of choice at all of the stores in the mall.  The booths offered by mybestfit and currently installed in a Pennsylvania mall look very similar to full body scanning solutions see at the airport, but instead of scanning for dangerous items provide a very detailed sizing profile for users.  Given the ongoing vanity sizing taking place in fashion, this could be a very useful service.   While it doesn’t solve the problem of varying sizes at stores, it could take some of the guesswork out of picking the right size clothing to take to the dressing room.  Whether these booths use the same technology or not, the footprint is essentially identical.  This means that the biggest obstacle for this solution is removing consumer perception that ‘nude’ images of them will surface on the internet somewhere.  While they highlight that users stay clothed for sizing, I see no validation that privacy is assured and that no images are seen or kept.  This solution needs to be sold carefully to consumers and locked down hard against technically proficient attendants with, shall we say, a potentially loose sense of privacy and online behaviour.  I’m not suggesting that these points would be front and centre of their marketing plan, but there should be an FAQ somewhere.  I’m not shy, and I trust the airport security who protect us to a reasonable degree to keep images to themselves as a semi-official professional organization, but I don’t trust some person at the mall I’ve never met, and nobody else should either.  Privacy issues aside, if it works as advertised, it’s a very impressive and practical solution, and it would be great to see it in the local mall.

Mobile Payment – Much hyped Square had come under some fire from the payments industry for security holes, but is looking to move towards industry standards with some investment from Visa.   Also, for those of us with those EMV woes that may want to pay or be paid through these iPhone interfaces, iZettle out of Sweden apparently have an EMV flavour of card reading device.  As always, the mobile wallet brings controversy, multiple players, and no simple answer any time soon.

Social Media Vending MachinePepsi recently announced social media capability in a new breed of vending machines.  Users can purchase a Pepsi for a friend at a machine, and the friend can pick up their beverage at another social media enabled vending machine.  Users can send the beverage with a personalized text message or some macines will even have video message capability.   Check the video for more details.  It’s fascinating how vending and self-service are increasingly converging.  The improvements in technology seem to allow the only limit to the solution be the imagination of the responsible party.  That and a solid budget.  As these systems become increasingly complex, the support infrastructure behind it will need to become more robust than the person in the delivery truck unlocking the unit and emptying the coins.  The thought behind supporting solutions like these for the long term is as important as the idea itself, as this solution support – the infrastructure for the video, the supply chain for the merchandise, the ability to monitor the uptime of the system, and the ongoing care and feeding in general – will be what makes these solutions a success or a giant boat anchor.  A boat anchor with a large, blank flat LCD on the front of it.

2011.01 | Articles of Note

A few interesting retail based articles from over the holiday season:

  • I find the multiple to single queues found in banks and some retail stores to be my favourite, but not everyone sees it.   Consider why it seems you always pick the wrong line.
  • Square ships their payment at iPhone dongle and application.  Check out an unboxing.
  • Researchers at Cornell have put together a 3D food printer.  This could change food distribution for QSRs restaurants of all sorts in the future
  • While not overtly a retail technology, this iteration of the Cooper Mini App and its car integration certainly sets the stage for increasing integration between vehicles and retailers. Adding in the element of gaming to compare yourself with other drivers is a fascinating element as well.
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