2018-05-28 – Scan & Pay – BYOP – Video – Dual Speed Store

cart mount for mc18Mobile Scan and PayProgressive Grocer recently ran a solid article on how grocers that enable scanning with mobile phones or devices can benefit.  Lots of good points in here – particularly on how audits and shopper identification ensure a good balance of shopper experience and shrink avoidance. After years of anticipation, this solution is starting to find its place.

BYOP – Bring your own packaging is getting a boost from Morrisons. Progressive ideas like allowing shoppers to bring their own containers are a unique and interesting prospect at a major retailer – as long as hygiene is well addressed. Given the ongoing plans to remove plastic bags and drinking straws, this is not a surprising development, and certainly an admirable idea! Tares will need to be addressed on self-service systems, but that is entirely addressable with current solutions.

atm-card-skimmer-safety-pin-number-shielded-by-hand-shutterstock-510pxVideo – Security in stores continues to evolve, with an increased focus on video. Sainsbury recently encountered some challenges with new video technology on self-checkout. While video on self-checkout is really nothing new, the concerns about HD cameras mounted above shoppers that can inadvertently show shoppers entering a PIN are a new phenomenon.

Kinks will need to be worked out of these new solutions, but the answer can be as low tech as covering your hand when you enter a PIN. This is my recommendation to all shoppers to avoid anyone seeing your pin. A better option is to use contactless with your credit card (face down so nobody can steal your number). For the best possible security for smaller transactions use Apple Pay or Google Pay that don’t show the number or a PIN to any camera and require your thumbprint!

Dual Speed Store – I’ve been talking to retailers for years about the same shoppers visiting stores for different journeys, and thinking about how we support different experiences with different technologies and store processes.

Buying shoes is a great example. Sometimes shoppers walk right up to the pair they want and then walk out. Some shoppers will try on many pairs. Both are different experiences. I wholeheartedly encourage new ideas to best address all shopping journeys. I found this recent article on just such a store design. This is an idea all retailers can consider to suit their various businesses, and ideally none of us wait!

2016.05 | Paper, Plastic, Neither?

It’s taken decades for us to get this close to the paperless office. Paper will probably never go away completely, but over the years the usage of paper and copies in my work has diminished exponentially. I rarely print anything. I prefer to store and send all information electronically. Electronic information is much quicker to share, easy to search, and easy to carry.

But has this movement to electronic information reached retail consumers visiting stores? It has, but not to the same degree that many of us experience at work and at home.

I recently visited a specialty shop to buy some tea, and encountered a familiar experience. I was offered the opportunity to join a loyalty club and I’m glad to do that for a discount, however, the method of enrollment was to scan and give me two plastic cards. One card for my wallet and one for a key ring. I accepted them and then took both of my paper receipts; one for my transaction and one for the debit/credit transaction. I then promptly threw away the paper receipts and, after registering my cards, dutifully scanned them with Stocard and filed them.

I accept that one plastic card and one (or two) paper receipt(s) aren’t going to fill up a landfill, but consider the millions of transactions that take place every day. We generate and track all of the data electronically, but instead of sharing it electronically, we print it off and hand it to a customer so that the vast majority of them can promptly throw it away or lose it.

thd receiptWhy do we still print receipts? Let’s consider the arguments I’ve heard over the years:

  • Customers like to check their prices and discounts. This is 100% true – particularly in grocery for a certain subset of budget minded customers. These customers want their receipts and they study them carefully.  They should have them. Retail is all about enabling choice, and this may be a group that will always want paper, however, it is arguable that they have never been provided a better alternative. A subset of these people will accept an electronic receipt if we can supply it quickly enough after the transaction and enable capability paper can’t provide.
  • Loss Prevention teams prefer customers to have bags and paper receipts. It’s obvious that this would make policing in challenging shrink environments easier. Consider another angle. Loyalty customers should receive perquisites, and not having to take a paper receipt is one I enjoy. All transactions are recorded electronically, and with the increasing proliferation of mobile devices in the hands of store associates and shoppers, it should be a simple matter to look up the customers receipts on a store or personal device and validate the date, time, and items on a transaction if required.
  • Retailers are required to give a receipt by Interac / Payments Processor / Credit Card Company. I don’t have a definitive answer on this item through the research I’ve done online (message me if you know!), however, it is certain that no paper receipt is required for eCommerce transactions which are a growing segment of retail purchases. I have also personally made a number of transactions at retailers where I opted for an electronic receipt and no paper receipt was printed, so it is possible.
  • Returns require a receipt. In today’s environment, all retailers should have a centralized database of transactions. We’re no longer relying on our cashiers to validate a real receipt versus a counterfeit receipt or whether a customer is potentially returning items dishonestly. Receipts are not required – transaction ids are required, or even better – the customer’s unique identifier to look up their past transactions. Data is what is needed.  Not paper.

The bottom line here is that paper should be optional.  If customers want it, it should be available. If they don’t want it, there is no need to print it. Every retailer and restaurateur is constantly looking for ways to save any costs.  Any budget cut significantly should help a retailers bottom line. If 25% or 50% of a paper budget for a year is removed it’s an improvement. Take the opportunity to enable an shopper opt-in no receipt option on POS or non-integrated pinpad terminals, and if processes are enabled correctly, the retailer’s knowledge of the shopper’s data will make the experience seem simple and seamless, just by scanning an id from a mobile device.  No paper, no card and no wallet needed

So what about the loyalty card? Why are pieces of plastic still distributed?  In the past, it enabled providing a quickly read and convenient MSR card. It enabled quick enrollment and provided the retailer with a desirable place in a customer’s wallet with their cash and credit cards.  Their logo was visible, and if the customer wanted points and discounts they had to carry that card and look at that logo.

simonsWe now live in 2016, in the world of smartphone proliferation. We live in the world of Apple Pay, Apple Wallet, Android Pay and Stocard. We live in a world with hundreds of cards and loyalty programs – more than can fit in a physical wallet.  Scanner-Imagers have replaced MSR readers. Mobile based electronic

It’s important to capture shoppers at the time of purchase, and while like paper receipts, plastic loyalty cards should be available, why give one to all shoppers to throw away? Once again, they cost money; why throw anything away if it’s not necessary. Why not enroll shoppers electronically at the point of purchase? Electronic loyalty cards provide benefits beyond plastic cards:

  • Shoppers sometimes forget to bring their wallet or plastic loyalty card with them.  Shoppers bring their mobile devices everywhere.
  • Apps and Mobile Wallet cards can have geofenced capabilities to allow apps to be brought up on the mobile device with a shortcut at the bottom of the screen on iOS devices – a similar position to that cherished in the wallet in the past.
  • Point totals can be shown directly on the card if enabled in Apple Wallet or Android Wallet or other apps, allowing shoppers to know their balance and potentially increasing their purchases in store before point of purchase.
  • Rebranding can be completed electronically instead of deploying new cards.
  • Pairing apps and electronic store cards allows a single touchpoint on mobile devices for interaction with customers.  A single app can allow opt-in promotions for loyal and dedicated shoppers, and they can identify themselves with that same device.

There are multiple ways to enable electronic enrollment. Some shoppers are likely to enroll online before visiting the store.  I use a password and identity manager that will autofill forms on any device I own to avoid constantly entering the same person details. Simons, for example, allows shoppers to enroll for their program online and even show the barcode on screen from the mobile website.  For those shoppers that enroll in the store, a loyalty id can be generated electronically and connected to an email address for the shopper to add their details later. Other creative solutions like tapping an NFC tag to connect to an enrollment engine are also available from organizations like Mobilpoint.

For the ongoing use of loyalty cards, it’s easiest for shoppers to use Apple Wallet or Android Pay for retailers that support it and Stocard for those that do not.

For those that want it, there is nothing wrong with paper or plastic.  Retail is all about enabling choice; yet there is no reason for paper and plastic to be the default.  There are lots of use cases to justify the electronic path and move the receipt and card options out of wallets and into the electronic world.

2016.04 | department store self service

hbc womens shoes

Just a few years ago, things were bleak for Department Stores to the point where their very existence was threatened. Seven years on and there is a revival in department stores; in Canada in particular. Hudson Bay stores are much improved, and Holt RenfrewSimons and Nordstrom are all expanding in store or adding new locations in Canada. Department Stores have found new relevance through various strategies: obtaining the rights to desirable trendy brands, providing international expansion for international brands via in-store boutiques, enhancing eCommerce footprint to augment and enhance the store experience or by serving the high-end market.

All of these strategies are underpinned by customer experience; department and specialty retailers are all about a unique customer experience or they would be mass merchants. It may be that need to differentiate themselves from mass merchants is what has kept these retailers from considering self service.

Self service has been embraced by grocery and mass merchants for almost 20 years.  More and more specialty retailers are leveraging endless aisle solutions in store and off site but there have been few initiatives for in store purchases at self service. Perhaps it is time to reconsider why it hasn’t been used, and consider whether things have changed.

Definition of Service – Many years of experience with self service has seen a shift in what is considered service.  There is a perception among a percentage of the population that a “machine” does not represent good customer service. Others note that no matter how opulent your surroundings in a store, once you have the item that you want to purchase, waiting in a queue is tiresome. Providing a self service option can reduce that line in the same POS footprint by providing four points of service that can be used simultaneously where one could be used before. In the traditional POS configuration in a Department Store with 4 people in line, 3 people wait. With a self service configuration, 0 of 4 people wait.  Nobody waits, and queues are dispersed more quickly than in the traditional model. Giving time back to shoppers is definitely a service.

Pervasiveness of Technology – The new graduates joining the workforce today have never known a world without the Internet – or self service. They are accustomed to technology and constant change. These people are the growing legions of shoppers in all stores. They want to shop in their stores; not their grandparents. The option of scanning items is a natural option, and not a retailer asking them to do work on their behalf.

Labour –  While tier one department stores that sell $500 keychains are swarming with sales staff, there are still a vast number of stores across a retailer’s estate that are not staffed in that manner. Suburban malls across North American cities appear to have a far lower staffing level. Shoppers who stop at a suburban store on Monday night to buy a pair of socks will hunt for someone to take their money. Walking far afield looking for POS “island” to find it is either closed, or has a line of 4 people. Self service is an excellent tool to combat spikes and troughs in customer traffic. Department Store staff are rarely dedicated cashiers, but have a host of other responsibilities. Why not provide staff with a tool to support multiple customer at one time?

Tendering – Cash is still pervasive across North America, but its use is continues to drop.  The implementation of EMV has reduced fraud in Canada and the UK. Shoppers are all accustomed to the drill of paying with a card at a payment terminal. Chip and Pin, NFC, Apple Wallet, and Android Wallet make it increasingly easier and quicker to transact with debit and credit cards on small footprint machines. The potential success of a cash only self-checkout has never been more likely.

Design – Self-checkouts have traditionally been a rather large footprint affair with an industrial look and feel. Department Stores aspire to be bastions of fashion and design, and any technology in the store must reflect that. The ability to leverage debit/credit only devices enables a much smaller footprint, as well as a device that is much more aesthetically pleasing, and a better fit in the Department and Specialty environment.

Security Tags – Many items in Department and Specialty require hard tag removal. Store staff are really the specialists on these tags, and that’s where most of that knowledge should reside. Newer implementations of self service checkout encourage attendants to be active with shoppers, and not behind an attendant’s podium. Given the right strategies, soft and hard tags can be dealt with in a self service environment, though training of staff will be elemental to success, and a targeted mix of merchandise to be accepted at self service is well advised. Not every item is easily sold via self service.

While many of the changes to the technology of self service point to it as a great opportunity for Department and Specialty, implementing self service requires different strategies than other retail segments like hospitality, food, mass merchandise and petro convenience. Every Department and Specialty retailer is different, but if the strengths of self service are considered in implementation, there is opportunity for success.

 Here are a few ideas to ponder:

  • Look for queues to remove
  • Look for broad fluctuations in traffic that are difficult to accommodate with staffing
  • Look for transactions with small items. These are easier for self service – bulky items are difficult
  • Look for transactions with 7 items and less; these are ideal for self service
  • Consider a small footprint option: a set of 4 Self Checkouts can be placed where 1 POS is today
  • Soft tags are easier for self service, but hard tags can be dealt with given the right attendant strategy
  • Debit and credit transactions mean no cash handling, no cash on hand for these devices, and fewer security issues
  • Consider bagging and have the right supplies to accommodate shopper purchases
  • Consider wasted areas near escalators. Those are central to traffic and could potentially support self service
  • Consider replacing POS “islands” with self service around the counter
  • Consider starting in suburban stores with less staff instead of urban stores with lots of staff
  • Consider self service as a branding opportunity on the screens and in the design of the self service pod
  • Consider using self service devices to allow customers to check in to pick up their items ordered online.
  • Consider carefully the staffing model to ensure the units have the support they need
  • Ensure that the units are serviced with helpful staff who ensure self service is an option
  • Service is about choice. What choice to shoppers have in store today?

Department stores have an opportunity to rethink their customer interactions in a way that many other specialty retailers cannot. They have the floor space, they have the opportunity for traffic, and they are trying to differentiate themselves on customer experience. With the expansion of customer interaction options, it only makes sense to consider every channel to maximize business. While self service is definitely not the right answer for all Department and Specialty shoppers and transactions, it provides a great option, and service is all about choice.

2015.03 | self-service: everybody benefits

cbc-nrfWith newspapers struggling as they are in Canada, with newsrooms merging and paper editions being shelved, it isn’t surprising that the level of journalism from a recent CBC article left me shaking my head. The recent article titled: “Self-checkouts: Who really benefits from the technology?” seems slanted to provoke the ire of hard working, time starved Canadians who find themselves hit with increasing food prices, a dropping dollar and a challenging job market and economy.  As the title of this post indicates, everyone can benefit from self-service.

Let’s consider the article and its assertions, which seem to be designed to provoke those that don’t like retail technology to read (or watch) it and complain.

“And it’s not just in-store shopping: Canadians are selecting their own movie seats, printing their own event tickets and checking themselves into flights. But not everyone is buying it.  

“I’m starting to resent doing unpaid work,” says Bonnie Banks, who lives in Whitby, Ont. “And it seems to be escalating.”

Self service technologies are not for everyone.  I recommend retailers provide choices for their shoppers so that we can interface with retailers in any way that we wish.  Shoppers can feel free NOT to print their own movie tickets or NOT check themselves in to a flight on their mobile, but should remember that the shorter line they are enjoying is the result of others not having to join the line, so EVERYONE benefits from self-service, whether they use it or not.

Where does one draw the line at “unpaid work”?  At the beginning of the twentieth century, clerks gathered shopper requested items from behind the counter and bundled them all up. Shoppers generally have to walk through the store and select their own items today.  Is that “unpaid work”?

Not a relevant enough reference? Shoppers now have the option of purchasing groceries online and picking them up at the store.  Should they feel slighted that they must drive to the store to pick it up?  Nobody thinks that.  The assertion that shoppers and consumers are being harnessed for work is ridiculous. Shoppers have choices and they are free to make them, whether it’s which retailer to visit, or which type of transaction they wish to engage in.

The newer machines don’t just scan and take your cash. Self-checkout kiosks can also be programmed to upsell, and may succeed in getting you to buy more where humans fail.

In a 2004 experiment, McDonald’s found that customers using self-service kiosks supersized their meals, spending 30 per cent more on average. One reason? We’re more willing to increase the order when we’re not worrying about the person behind the cash judging our choices.

Self-service machines can ask the exact same questions as people about upselling on meals – which every single restaurant worker does – and this is a heretofore unknown evil plan of self-service?  The units were more successful at upselling 11 years ago than humans.  This says more about humans than it does about technology.

mcdonalds-self-order-kiosks-canadaInterestingly enough, McDonald’s Canada have been deploying self-service order taking systems in Canada over the past few months, and I think they work very well.  Based on my own experience, I would say it enables them to take more orders at once, and split the fulfillment of orders from payment to the benefit of both McDonald’s and their shoppers.  If shoppers prefer to order from a cashier, that option stands, and there are fewer people in the line.  More options; more convenience. Perhaps the article could have considered a current deployment and the potential benefits to users and retailer alike instead of referencing an 11 year old study from the same company.

Advocates say that self-service kiosks give customers convenience, privacy and control.

“Some people like to be in control of what’s going on. Some people like to have a very private experience. So if I’m going in and buying something that’s maybe a personal item, I might prefer to buy it on my own without help,” says Christina Forest, a senior project manager for Fujitsu, which makes self-checkout machines.

This is absolutely accurate, and one would suppose, the CBC’s attempt at showing the positive side of self-service. Once again, retail is all about choice.  I’ve not yet seen a store force anyone to use a self-checkout, and as the interviewee mentions above, it provides a level of privacy for purchases that might be uncomfortable for some, and even provides shoppers the opportunity to bag items in their own way.

I don’t always choose self-service (if I have a large cart of items for example, I will choose an assisted lane) but it is ideal to have the option.  Control and convenience are key to retailers getting my shopping dollar, and I’m certain other shoppers agree.

“Aside from the obvious technology costs, having customers do some work themselves can mean less overhead costs for companies.

For example, the cost of checking in a passenger at the airport is about $3 with a staffed desk, according to a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation entitled Embracing the Self-Service Economy.

But when customers use electronic terminals? That cost drops to 14 cents.

In total, moving to a fully automated check-in and boarding process could save the airline industry $1.6 billion a year, the International Air Transport Association says.

Are those savings being passed on to the consumer? Marketplace spoke to leading retailers and industry experts and found no clear evidence that is always the case.

CBC MarketPlace expected a massive drop in costs to be correlated with increased use of self-service?  This seems an unlikely outcome for a business as sophisticated and complex as a retailer or an airline, both subject to thousands of external market forces and consumer influences.  While there are savings from self-service, that does not mean that staff are ignominiously dumped in favour of machines with a massive reduction in cost, or that this change in service can occur overnight.  That cost can now be transferred to other parts of the business to better effect. Retailers can allocate knowledgeable staff to assist customers or provide other value added services.

If these costs were NOT shared with consumers in some way, should CBC MarketPlace not have noted a massive increase in airline profits as soon as boarding pass kiosks were implemented given reduced costs and no change to what is charged to the client?  Any business that wants to survive has to change with the times requires an ROI for new technology.  There had to be an ROI for these items, and now they have become a part of the fabric of how business is done because they are convenient and avoid needless queues; not because they are a cash grab for retailers and airlines.

“And do self-checkouts get you out of the store faster? Marketplace timed shoppers with identical grocery lists to see how cashiers compare to self-checkouts.

The cashier was able to get through the transaction faster and with fewer problems. And in one case, an incorrectly punched code at a self-checkout meant one shopper was charged $70 for 10 brussels sprouts.”

This bit of “science” will rankle any of my colleagues in retail technology. Ask any retailer or any retail technology vendor. Absolutely nobody in retail would suggest that a shopper will outpace a cashier for an individual transaction. How could a shopper be better at a cashier’s job than a cashier? That thinking misses the point completely. If you consider your own time shopping, it’s never the time that the cashier is scanning or waiting for you to tender that takes the time. The time that rankles is queuing; waiting in line is the part that frustrates universally.

Consider that a single transaction for a small basket could take 90 seconds from start to finish.  There is one cashier and one lane open and four shoppers.  The first shopper waits 0 seconds, the second waits 90 seconds, the third shopper waits 180 seconds, the fourth shopper waits 240 seconds.

If there is a self-service option one attendant with 4 lanes, NONE of the shoppers wait.  Even if they take perhaps 1.5 times as long, which is a reasonable estimate, all of the shoppers are out of the store in ~135 seconds.  All of the shoppers get out of the store quickly and get one with their lives.  I would rather finish and leave, but others are free to use the queue of which I am not a part.

New self-checkout units are also getting smaller, so that more and more self-service terminals can take the place of traditional assisted lanes. This means that small footprint stores that are fantastically busy can have more selling space and increased capacity to complete transactions. It seems like bad business NOT to use self service in sites with lines. Not only will it reduce the lines; it will reduce the number of shoppers who decide to leave as the queue is too long; increasing revenue opportunity with no other change to the store.

Now, for those that want a traditional assisted service, attendants should be trained to kindly and helpfully assist those people as they wish or direct them to the lanes where they can be helped – with lines reduced by those using self-service terminals I would add.

“Beyond money, Lambert says there are other ways doing “shadow work” costs us.

“It often takes the human being out of the equation,” he says. “Those small relationships are part of how you build a community, frankly.

“Robots don’t interchange banter. There’s no pleasantries going back and forth between you and the kiosk. And as a result, it somewhat dehumanizes daily life.”

Jenni Murray, a columnist for the U.K newspaper Daily Mail, wrote she finds the increasing dependence on self-checkouts “a frustrating, depressing experience.”

“There’s nothing like some human contact for making a dull chore a better experience,” she wrote in a column last year.”

The human touch makes all of the difference; one can’t disagree with that.

Self-service does not necessarily mean we are dealing with a “robot”. When I visit the airport, there are always a great number of airline staff on hand to direct customers with less experience. The touch is no less personal when one uses a screen after one talks to them for assistance on where to print a baggage tag.

Retailers I work with are keen to provide a wonderful customer experience and that does not differ with self-service. Why would retailers encourage friendly, thoughtful cashiers and interactions at assisted service and not at self service?  Attendants trained by our teams teach them to encourage shoppers to use self-service if they are in a queue to be helpful. They are encouraged to be engaging, and watch for cues from self-service shoppers and assist them quickly and thoughtfully if they require help.

If self-checkouts are a “frustrating, depressing experience” for a shopper, there are a two potential issues: 1. The self-checkouts are not being managed correctly; with assistance to be sure that shoppers understand any issues and they can be corrected quickly and helpfully. 2.  The shopper just doesn’t like self-service and should go to an assisted lane, or have their order processed at the self-checkout by an attendant.

No one solution pleases everyone. Staff should be sure to read the cues and deal appropriately with customers. Customer satisfaction is a never ending job for an entire retailer ecosystem.  To blame a bad customer experience on a machine is shortsighted.

“According to research by the retail-technology company Tensator, one out of every three British shoppers polled had walked out of a store without the goods they intended to buy, simply because of a bad experience with a self-service checkout.”

While this certainly could be true, that study polled 400 people out of 64.1 million in the United Kingdom, which is not terribly sweeping.  Even so, the study offers a great opportunity for re-assessment of the implementation of self-service versus damning self-service itself.  From the details shown, technical issues do need to be resolved, and it appears that queuing and mix of self and assisted lanes could be improved. Retail is a messy business, and self-service is a part of that. There is always room for improvement.

This brings forth a key point.  Self-checkout has evolved to the point where it needs be assessed as part of the greater store ecosystem.  No longer can self-service be thrown into a store to augment traditional POS.  Channels are expanding with click and collect, mobile, loyalty, and self service screens of all kinds. If self-service is to be effective, it needs to be considered as part of that store ecosystem and retailers need to understand and own how all of these gears mesh together.

While there is always room for improvement, self-service definitely has much more upside than this article leads the public to believe.  In fact, retailers haven’t remotely leveraged the full potential to get shoppers in and out of stores in the way that best suits them with self-service and other technologies.

While the article and many of the reader comments wish to lay the blame for various issues at feet of self-service, these systems are merely tools leveraged by people in a genuine attempt to provide great service. Self-service isn’t about machines, it’s about getting people what they want in the quickest way possible.  Like they say, if you hate an advertisement, perhaps it’s not aimed at you. It’s all about choice, and you should select what works for you.

I now await scathing articles on the evils of self-service fuel pumps, ATMs and eCommerce – or maybe not.

2016.02 | mobile wallet strategy

14DD1532-L-Mobile-Payment-CD372_52a_PCR_SPINX_Gas_Pump_Mobile_phoneOne of the most common areas that challenges retailers these days are mobile payments – or as many of them refer to it – leveraging a mobile wallet – which I now interpret from retailers to mean paying without a card or currency versus a specific mobile wallet platform.

I’ve written a number of posts on the subject of mobile wallets over the years, usually lamenting that we will never get away from a physical wallet. The potential for shoppers to not use a physical wallet are certainly more realistic now then when I wrote those posts, but the process continues as an evolution and not a revolution.

The common nirvana that all retailers seek is the ability to seamlessly and simply accept all payment options desired by the majority of regular shoppers while being able to provide a personalized and loyalty building experience. The challenges restricting vendors, payments providers and retailers from that objective are legacy systems, budget, agreements with payment processors, and time to build these payment connections into their systems.

Mobile payments are certainly a part of that over-arching strategy of enabling payment, so what is the best strategy? That will differ by retailer, but there are some universal concepts to consider:

  • To start, target your end state, and attempt to draw the long map back to where things are today. Even if there are gaps, talk to retail solution vendors, payments vendors, card providers, banks and anyone in the industry to access their vision and experience. Keep in mind that all of the technology will change in a few months and it will need to be re-assessed. Basic long term planning as should be targeted for all large scale retail solutions.
  • Don’t get stuck on offering payments within your in house mobile app, UNLESS your app provides a unique value proposition to the shopper that you are trying to leverage and payments is a logical extension of that app.  In my admittedly anecdotal experience, users have lots of apps already, and don’t look for more retailer apps as a rule UNLESS they provide a unique value proposition that fulfills a need to them.  Your most loyal customers may want your app to be able to pre-order their meal, control your fuel dispenser, or buy movie tickets, and it makes sense to enable payments to conclude that shopper interaction.  Make that in app payment as simple as possible with services that can remember the card or retrieve it with a password.
  • Consider the payment options that are already in use or are desirable for your shoppers.  If your shoppers are using credit cards, encouraging them to use a debit driven solution as part of a mobile solution is a challenge.  If you want to drive a particular payment model, be prepared to encourage shoppers with points or deals. Bitcoin sounds cutting edge, but is it worth accepting as a tender for the volume of business and it’s volatility? Having a gift card balance for coffee makes sense, but for groceries it is not logical. If the payment option you need to enable is not available, push the vendors for it.
  • How would a mobile wallet be used at the front end of your store?  If it isn’t dead simple for both shopper and cashier, it’s going to slow the queue and increase wait time.  That is a tough sell for any retail environment, and death for a high velocity retail environment.
  • Consider the full customer interaction with payment integrated. The challenge often encountered is that the majority of retailers have a loyalty program of some type. Shoppers need to identify themselves to obtain their loyalty benefits. With a mobile payment solution, shoppers generally have to show a loyalty card on their mobile, and then use the mobile to pay. Having to scan two different codes or tap more than once seems redundant, but this issue is often not easily solvable today at a traditional point of sale, as loyalty members have to identify themselves PRIOR to tendering to obtain discounts, collect points, etc, and THEN they pay the calculated total at which they pay with their device. (Starbucks manages one scan by using a stored value card tied to a loyalty account. Mobile apps to pre-order food, control a fuel dispenser or buy movie tickets have users registered with details stored and payment can be online by storing a card, so no double tap there either) Consider options to avoid the double tap/scan.
  • apple walletConsider Apple Pay and Android Pay if they make sense for your business.  With Apple Pay, there is some benefit to the security of fingerprint verification for retailers, and it is relatively easy to use with the iPhone and Apple watch, and getting notifications of payments immediately is certainly useful to some shoppers as is the ability to not carry their card.  In Canada the limitation right now is that Apple Pay only works with Amex.  Android Pay is another good option, particularly if you have an Android heavy shopper base.  The downside is that there are additional fees for these solutions.
  • Ensure you support and train users and store staff well on all the payments provided. There is nothing worse than having a customer trying to love your brand and pay with a new option and they cannot.  Payments are getting increasingly complex, but cashiers are catching up.  Many of them have received on the job training from bleeding edge shoppers who attempt every new payment and are willing to risk embarrassment or rejection with new payment types, but it would be better to have a complete map of payment options laid out simply.
  • Leverage your pinpad or contactless reader as much as possible for payments that are not over the air. Whether shoppers have to swipe, dip, tap, or enter a PIN; whether they use a card or a mobile device, the pinpad is currently the interface to which shoppers are accustomed. Keep the transaction and the payment linked physically.  If the transaction is on the mobile, pay on the screen of the mobile.  If the transaction is at a device (POS, Fuel Dispenser, Vending Machine, Ticket Dispensing Kiosk) keep the payment interaction connected to the device and pinpad.  Geo-fenced and over the air on the mobile screen solutions are an awesome concept, but are a challenging jump in logic for most shoppers today.  Unless you are a bleeding edge retailer, that is one for the future.

There has to be a benefit to both the retailer and to the shopper for there to be a reason for mobile payments, and the benefits are slowly tipping the scales towards increasing the usage of mobile.  There are too many things that favour it, and the landslide of devices in the hands of millions means it’s coming sooner or later.  Be sure to stay ahead of it and have a strategy.

2016.01 | retailer api for shoppers

LCBO appThe number of channels through which shoppers can access their retailers has been growing quickly for years now. Those channels are going to be expanded even further, as another set of retail interfaces are being developed by people who are not retailers. Entrepreneurs, hobbyists and even fans of a particular product, brand, segment or retailer are recognizing that data is available online and people are hungry for that data.  These individuals will make that data available in a format to reach a specific audience for fun or profit.

A fascinating example of a non-retailer developed channel is found in Ontario. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) is the one of the largest retailers of alcohol in the world. They have a broad spectrum of products and an even broader spectrum of consumers. The LCBO have attractive and busy stores, and do an excellent job of running their retail business, including the availability of a very useful and functional LCBO branded mobile app that provides timely inventory and pricing information to allow their shoppers to find their favourite products.

elsie appBefore that mobile app was in place, an enterprising individual built a crawler to gather the data hosted on the LCBO.com eCommerce site and made it available to mobile app developers via an API at LCBOAPI.com.   The API had almost 100 keyholders that were accessing the data as of February 2015, and the service has 60,000 to 80,000 requests for data on a daily basis.  The API presents all of the current data of the LCBO’s pricing and inventory by store from the e-commerce site gathered on a daily basis.

While this alone is commendable as an interim step since the LCBO didn’t have an app at that point, the really interesting part is what the 100 different users of the API are doing with that data.  It’s all the same data, but the way it is used and presented can vary widely.

Users who prefer a different look and feel from the LCBO app can leverage the elsie app on their mobile device to check on pricing and availability.   The UI is an elegant and simple affair, and it provides picks at LCBO from kwaf as a side benefit for wine lovers.

searc2h6oGoing in a completely different direction, the website searC2H6O allows users to quickly sort and search through any products at the LCBO in a simple and yet information rich user experience in a web browser on a desktop or mobile to validate pricing and availability before they go out to shop.  The focus here is more based on price, with a per serving cost provided.

wine alignWinealign is another website that leverages the data.  With a focus on wines, including in depth articles, ratingsand reviews, users can peruse all types of wine and then immediately see the availability and pricing before they leave home to shop.

I searched for the same product on all of these services and the images make it easy to see that they all provide a unique experience.  This data could certainly be leveraged further, with apps or sites for whisky lovers, for craft beer aficionados, or whatever other unique subset of products is out there – enabling direct access to inventory and pricing information as a link from their content to the products.

The last few years has really been all about the standard channels in retail – the store, the eCommerce website and the mobile application. While these examples are really just a variation on that theme, they are an indicator of more sophisticated interactions to come as third parties connect to this data and use it in new and unexpected ways that retailers or vendors could may not have the time or budget to justify.   Embracing these channels as an opportunity is the best way forward for retailer and shopper alike.

Retailers like Best Buy have been embracing this for a while. Got any great examples of leveraging retailer APIs that makes something amazing? I’d love to hear about it.  Contact me or leave a comment!

2015.03 | retail mobile apps in canada

This recent online article provided an interesting quotation.  “Canadians are not all that engaged in getting mobile apps from retailers” according to Indigo’s VP of Marketing and Customer Intelligence.  Do Canadians avoid downloading apps or using mobile options to shop because we don’t see value?  Not everyone would agree with that opinion, and if apps provide value that aligns with their brand, retailers’ most dedicated brand followers are likely to be among their users.

There is no magic formula to mobile apps. Retail is all about choice. Every shopper is different and has their own unique journey. Every retailer provides different services and experiences. I have a number of Canadian retailer apps on my mobile device, and the ones that stay on have different traits that I find engaging:

Transaction Capability

I have purchased movie tickets using the Cineplex app for years now. It works well and interfaces to Passbook to simplify scanning for ticket pickup. One opportunity to make the app even better is to simplify payment. Mobile doesn’t lend itself well to entering credit card numbers. While I understand the challenges of storing credit card numbers, online retailers already do it, and I would be willing to store mine as it would easily cut the transaction time in half.

From my perspective, using the app allows me to buy my tickets on the way to the theater while someone else drives and skip the purchasing line at POS or kiosk at the theater. It may not be a value to all users, but skipping lines is a popular past time for most people. Retailer Bonus: lines are shorter for those that choose to buy tickets onsite!


Picture1While I remain uncertain about the value of pre-ordering in an environment like Starbucks that is often high traffic with a lot of queuing, the pizza ordering process has a process to it that lends itself well to mobile ordering. There are a number of options available in Canada, but the one that works for me isn’t an app at all. Panago pizza has a mobile enabled website. Their ordering options are very simple, and best of all, my most recent orders are front and centre when I login. Many apps are focused on jazzy animations of pizzas with the toppings on them.

Animations are fun for first use, but not when I want to just order the same order I had last time for pickup on the way home from the airport after a long day. No need to pay on the app. I pay when I get there, so no need to enter card numbers. If they ever put this simple interface on an app and stored my login it would certainly have a place on my mobile. For now it’s one of few bookmarks on my mobile desktop – and they even remembered to provide the icon on the site so it’s easy to see on the mobile.

Simple User Identification

Picture2One of the main challenges with websites over mobile apps is having to enter passwords. Using password managers like SplashID and 1Password simplifies this, but the majority of the people I speak with glaze over when I mention these tools, and most users forget their endless passwords, adding unwanted multiple steps to a mobile transaction that will dissuade them from using the app. Google and Apple are doing their part to enable browsers to automagically remember all of these passwords, but if credit cards are stored, security starts to suffer.

iTunes makes buying music and video simple by approving purchases with the fingerprint reader on the home button. Lululemon’s shopping app also identifies users by their fingerprint. This is a seemingly overlooked way to login to apps and bring up all of my info – shipping addresses, shopping cart, credit cards and more to apply to a transaction while providing some security. Retailers are constantly looking to remove friction from the purchasing process and both of these apps do that very well.

Fun and Rewards

Going to see a movie in a theater is a shared experience. I find that the Timeplay app for use at Cineplex theaters enhances that shared experience while providing rewards that are valuable to me – scene points towards free movies. The app allows everyone in the theater to compete in a movie trivia game where the mobile devices are used to submit answers to trivia games on the screen – like bar games of old. The top winners get Scene points and snack bar prizes. My children like to compete with me, we all have fun, and I eventually get a free movie entry.

An opportunity to improve the biggest issue with the app was recently addressed by enabling the user’s scene number to be stored in the app and prizes more easily applied. Once again, data entry of long numbers is not ideal. Removing those barriers makes everyone’s experience better, and will increase app usage.

Memory Extension

Picture3Retailers that have extensive inventories of products that lend themselves to repeat purchases provide utility with a favourites tracking capability. LCBO carries a lot of different kinds of wine, and everyone has gone there with instructions to pick up a bottle of wine that a loved one liked that they thought was from Australia and had a blue label; no red….or was it yellow. What year was it?

The LCBO app allows shoppers to scan barcodes on bottles and add them to a favourites list. For the next visit to the store, it’s easy to find that bottle that is impossible to remember without some help. It’s much easier to show your mobile screen to a store associate than describe its physical attributes. As an added bonus, the app will provide details on inventory as of 24 hours at your closest store or at any store in the chain too ensure you make the most of your trip.

This is a great example of truly connecting the mobile and store experience – it’s simple, it suits the needs of shoppers in this environment and provides value.

The Indigo app mentioned in the original article that prompted this post is on my mobile as well.  It has the ability to hold favourites lists as well, and you can name them, so I keep ongoing lists of books my family mentions to remember as gifts.  The app also leverages Passbook for loyalty card use.


For small transactions with regular customers, enabling payment via a barcode and stored value card is the best way to enable payment without using the pinpad at point of sale. Starbucks has done this well for years, and I have personally trained numerous Tim Horton associates over the past few months on how to accept the Tim Card on my mobile with their imager at POS and drive thru.  Wendy’s Canada are new to the game, and their solution works in much the same way – though with unique constantly changing six digit codes instead of a barcode.

While this payment capability is very useful, I still see shoppers re-loading their stored value card at the POS. That is a value of both of these stored value apps – the cards can be reloaded on the app. No need to hold up the line or enter a PIN at the POS. I think most people aren’t comfortable setting it up, and there is some need for culture shift there. Both of these apps do well at this, though once again, in my opinion, passwords and initial setup reduce the full contingent of potential users who are scared off by the effort. My initial setup for the Tim’s app took three attempts to match 2 passwords with capitals, symbols, etc.

Passbook Enablement

Picture4As someone who aspires to minimize my wallet, I use Passbook every day. I’ve seen very few others using it when I am at a POS, and it should be more widely used. Apps like Air Miles, Tim’s, Starbucks, and Cineplex all enable loyalty or payment cards to be stored in Passbook.

Passbook negates the need to carry another piece of plastic. There is no need to look through your phone to find and open the specific app for the card you want. I always have my mobile with me to show my card. While not every retailer can scan the card as they are not in the right cycle for replacement of their scanners, they can still give their number for entry – kudos to Rexall staff for always doing this when I show my card.

There is not an ideal mobile wallet yet, but changes like this are cultural, take time and are achieved by taking small steps – I start with loyalty cards and coffee payment. Drivers license and other ID could be next. I’m doing my part to encourage shoppers and retail associates to become comfortable with these options by using them and talking about them with others. Passbook is far from perfect, but it’s the best option to date.

There are lots of value in mobile apps already available and there is lots of opportunity for more.  Consider just a few other opportunities I’ve not seen realized in Canada as of yet:

Mobile Apps for Gas Pumps – It’s been very cold in most of Canada this winter.  Why not control the fuel pump from inside the relative warmth of our cars?  The technology exists to do this and even order food from outside the store.  You could even scan codes from windshield washer fluid, ice or firewood in the summer and pay without having to enter the store.  Oh, and it’s time to get rid of those stickers that say not to use your mobile at the pump.  The gas station operators are less concerned than in the past. The myth of danger is busted.  That said, we should always pay attention to what we are doing when we fuel.

Coupons – I’m not sure why we can’t open our mobile and select coupons to apply to our loyalty card for usage when we buy those items in Canada.  The technology exists and is available and in extensive use in the US.

Enable the app as Information Hub – All retailers are enabling buy online and ship to store.  Why not build this information into my account page so I can look it up?  A red notification icon on the app here would be more likely to catch my attention than an email.  Receipts should go here too.  I hate wasting paper.  Let me tell you that on the app, and don’t make me take a paper receipt automatically.  All account details should be available to me here and online and on my tablet.  Dominos does a great job of showing the status of your order and lets you track your order through the process. It would be fantastic to do this with orders for bigger items.

I think that there is a great deal of opportunity to improve on the mobile interactions retailers can provide, but as indicated, there are already lots of great options.  It’s impossible to walk around in public without seeing people staring at a mobile device.  There is no reason that they won’t adopt retailer apps, but they have to be educated, and it has to be more than signage.

For all of the signage I’ve seen at stores, I’ve never seen any evangelists in stores to help people understand all of the value that shoppers can get from the apps.  I’ve never seen cashiers or associates answering customers problems show them how it’s very easy to get what they need from the mobile app.  While the benefits of apps discussed above aren’t of value to everyone, there is definitely a population of people that are completely unaware of the benefits.  In a strange twist, the best vehicle to convince everyone to leverage this technology completely may be human interaction.  In the interim, I’m happy to use these tools and continue to share with others who are interested.

2015.02 | RFID self-checkout

IMG_8720For many years, retailers have heard about the benefits of RFID, and there has been little to no use of item level RFID to check out in a store.  On the weekend, I visited my local library with my family and had an opportunity to utilize the newly installed self-checkouts to check out our books.

Under the old system, all items had a unique barcode and an EAS security tag.  To check out an item, customers presented their books and library card to an attendant at a PC with a scanner.  The attendant scanned the library card to validate the customer’s identification, checked if there were any fines, holds etc, and then scanned all of the items to be checked out.  A receipt was printed and the
Photo 2015-02-09, 7 16 14 PM items were walked around a security gate at the combined entrance/exit, and handed to the library customer.  The security tags set off an alarm when they are near the gates, so the attendant passed them to the holder on the other side of the security gate.

Under the new system, there is no need for customers to interact with an attendant unless they have a fine, a hold, or some other intervention that goes beyond the simple checking out of an item.  The customer uses one of a few self-checkout terminals – which include PC and a scanner, but also a customer facing touchscreen, and an antenna in a pad on the counter.  The Photo 2015-02-09, 7 16 06 PMcustomer scans their library card, and if they have no fines or holds, they can then identify the items to check out.  To identify the items for borrowing, the customer places the items on the pad on the counter, with as many as three at a time piled on top of each other in a stack.  The antenna reads the tags in the books and shows them on the screen for verification.  The customer can validate that the items match, ensure any media inside the item matches the case, and complete the checkout with or without a receipt.

As the items are now considered checked out, the customer can walk past a gate with an RFID reader, and if the item they are carrying is checked out, no alarm will sound.  If an item has not been checked out and allocated to the customer’s card, an alarm will sound.

On the whole, the system worked very smoothly. While only recently installed, customers took to it and had little issue using it.  The library staff were helpful and encouraging for the few customers who did require assistance.

The RFID system was a good fit in the library for a number of reasons:

  • Even if RFID tags are more expensive than barcode labels and EAS tags, items are tagged once and then run through the system many times as they are loaned through their useful life, instead of being purchased once.
  • Most items in a library are flat and lend themselves to easy scanning on a pad like this.  There are rarely very heavy, bulky or oddly shaped items to be checked out.
  • Consumers are accustomed to self service from using it at ATMs, airports and retail self-checkouts so they recognize the paradigm of self service took to it well.
  • All customers are identified with an identity card.  No exceptions.
  • One attendant can now support many customers at a time instead of one, reducing wait times, and ideally enhancing the customer experience. If customers don’t wish to check out their own items, they can assist them easily.
  • Allowing customers to walk out the door with their own items without passing them around a security gate appears to provide better flow and a smoother checkout experience.  It also removes an underlying assumption of distrust implied by the gates and security system as previously configured.

The whole system reminded me of a question I had from a retailer at NRF who asked to see our RFID self-checkouts.  While I would personally like to see RFID checkouts in retail purely from a love of technology, it seems unlikely at present.  There are some differences between this library scenario and many retail environments from a checkout perspective:

  • It will be difficult to convince all the parties involved in manufacturing goods to move to item level RFID tags unless the retailer and consumer are willing to absorb the price.  The prices are getting lower and lower for the sort of passive tags needed for items purchased at retail.  Time will tell if it will be enough!  The big retailers will have to drive this adoption.
  • Implementing readers to read these tags instead of barcodes would require a replacement or at least an upgrade to current reader infrastructure.  An ROI is needed to change/add that infrastructure to include RFID readers.
  • While libraries have basic flat items, other retail environments have all sorts of uniquely sized and shaped items that may not lend themselves well to a standardized rfid reader environment.  For unusual items, a handheld RFID reader could be used, but if it was, what’s the difference between holding that RFID reader to a tag and scanning a barcode as is done today?  Not much.
  • Would there be a throughput advantage?  For smaller transactions, it is very unlikely.  Cashiers and even customers scanning themselves can scan a few items relatively quickly.  For smaller transactions, tendering is generally the longest part of the transaction and not the scanning.  For larger transactions, there may be some throughput advantage, but it would take time for retailers and consumers to develop the trust that the system would capture all of the items accurately.  Also, many customers like to validate their purchases and their prices as they are scanned.  Much of the throughput advantage of an instantaneous cart total could be lost by questions and validation afterward.
  • Weighable items would need to be either pre-packaged or separated for checkout.  Weighables couldn’t just be left in the cart for reading.
  • Unlike a library, the items that a consumer buys can’t be “checked out” as they are not unique in the store.  An antenna at the front of the store placed for security can’t identify items as valid to pass or not.  It’s unclear how security would work with RFID tags.  I’ve heard of more sophisticated and more costly RFID tags that can be de-activated on scan, but then what if a client changes their mind after the transaction or returns an item?  Does it need to be retagged?  How does one “print” a new tag for an item?  If RFID can’t be used for security, then EAS would be needed as well.
  • What about bulk items that are tagged with paper tags today?  What about low value and small items like greeting cards?

As with all solutions in a retail environment, there must be a benefit for both the consumer and the retailer for a solution to be implemented successfully.  It’s possible that the RFID self-checkout could get to that point if retailers can leverage the operational benefits on the back end first and push it to the front end.  Then it will take customers and retailers getting comfortable with wheeling a big basket of groceries up to a reader and taking that price as correct.

A lot of stars have to align for an RFID self-checkout to come our way, and if they do it will probably take some time.  Maybe next NRF.

2015.01 | mashgin

CaptureA new technology from mashgin promises to simplify the cafeteria line. Clients set their food on a scan table and the system identifies all of the food items with an imaging system, looks them up in a product base, calculates the total and charges the client automatically.

From the video demonstration, mashgin’s simplicity should make it a winner with customers. The concept works fast and simply, as it would need to do in this challenging retail environment. There are a number of factors which will influence this concept’s success as a full blown product.

Price – A POS for this type of environment is relatively inexpensive and can probably be had for $1000 – much less if a simple ECR is used. If this device can be had for that price range it could certainly be a winner. If significantly more expensive, it may be tough to win over cost conscious operators.

One could argue that a cashier could be removed from the equation to drive a huge ROI, but it will require a huge leap of faith for an operator to believe that all clients can be trusted to place all items on the scanner. The fear of shrink will probably mean a longer timeline to remove a cashier.

Another potential selling point is utilizing multiple devices with one cashier overseeing them as is done with self-checkout implementations. This is a more viable argument and potentially a better use of the cashier resources.

Payments – My experience with small transactions is that the longest element is tendering, and not scanning. While that seems counter-intuitive, tendering is never completed with a simple universal system in the real world. People pay with cash, credit, debit, and mobile devices now.

It will be important to incorporate payment into the system in a simple way that keeps flow moving.  The concept solution shown assumes a mobile solution or use of a credit card with an MSR slot.  Apple Pay or NFC cards could work well here. The the MSR card reader slot should be eliminated – that will need to be updated to as EMV is adopted in the US and many international markets.  My personal preference is to use an NFC card for food service payments so I can avoid entering a PIN.  Expect US fast food organizations to embrace NFC, beacons, or other options more fully once PINs become more common and a simple swipe of a credit card is replaced by people having to enter a PIN at POS; slowing the queues.

CaptureCustomer Choice – While the system appears entirely intuitive, there’s always a subset of clients that will struggle or reject self service. Some accommodation will need to be made to serve those that don’t wish to use self service. Some customers consider fast service to be good service, while others prefer the human touch. Ultimately the customer is right. Operators will not want to eliminate any potential revenue sources and will want to support any clients that want to eat.

Fraud / Incorrect Reads – The system will require monitoring to avoid shrink. What if two bars of chocolate are set one on top of the other so that the imager sees only 1 item and charges for one? What if the organic coffee is purchased instead of regular? A cup of coffee looks like a circle of black liquid to the imager – it’s impossible to tell without asking the customer or watching them.

Operations – Even though the system works quickly how the flow works in the restaurant environment will require some significant consideration. How many units should be used? Where should they be placed? How many attendants are needed and how are they best deployed? How are exceptions like a system reading a plate incorrectly or an item missing from the image database? How should the queue be arranged for best use of space and simple flow? What if customers have coupons or vouchers or some other discount?  How are the units updated?  Where does the database reside?  Is it simple for local staff to amend and update the product base?

While its certainty not fair to expect a fully developed system from a concept video, it’s important to think through the entire transaction. This concept has much in common with other self service concepts and the issues above are common to all.  All of the issues above are certainly addressable with some thought and an operator devoted to working through the solution with mashgin. I would happily use this sort of technology and look forward to seeing a fully developed iteration in a cafeteria line in the future!

2014.22 | findbox | robots

findbox – If you’ve ever gone to a big box DIY store with a strange looking screw or bolt in hand, comparing your piece to those in little tiny drawers, findbox is the tool for you.

Findbox is a fixture mounted screen with a camera and image recognition software.  Shoppers place their item on a platform under the camera, and the system completes an image search for the item on the platform.  The system will then display a photo, name and product id of the item if it is in stock at the store.  The system also has the ability to provide shelf tags that can flash a light on the shelf to indicate where the hardware item is located in the aisle.

findboxAs a shopper who has searched for small unusual items countless times, this sounds like a wonderful concept and one I would welcome in my local DIY store.  Finding someone to help you with one screw is a bother for both parties.  If a system can do this quickly and easily, I’m all for it.  If it’s accurate, it will probably also save me trips as ideally it’s better at this than I am.

Findbox also enables retailers to own the search results enabling them to highlight found items based on whatever parameters suit their model – margin, product fit, or whatever they wish.  The retailer could also look at what is most commonly being searched on the device, and if there are commonalities, that information could be used to modify the display for ease of search, or even highlight other potential sales opportunities for related items for nearby placement.

For the right situation, this solution provides benefits to both retailer and shopper.  The retailer can ideally provide a higher level of service for more shoppers with no change in staff, and provide a service at the shoppers convenience to help them find what they need.  There is data to be gathered and potentially used for benefit.

The shopper minimizes search time and frustration and avoids the need to find staff to ask a question unless they wish to do so.  The system could potentially recommend alternative or related items they may require to finish their job and save them a trip as well.

findbox find by lightOne wonders if this solution could be taken another footprint, with an app for devices so that users can take a photo of the item and be provided details on local establishments that can supply the item.

Perhaps the logic of the solution can be provided as an API for DIY retailers to include in their own apps.  While retailers like Amazon have offered this capability for some time for Books, DVD’s, and more, I’ve not seen it for identifying hardware items.

Contractors who regularly visit DIY retailers may find this to be another useful item on their mobile device to save them time.  Virtually no shopper is going to type in a long description full of fractions and measurements to see if it is on hand at a store, but taking a picture to find something unusual would be a great way to narrow the search and save DIY regulars time and effort.

robots – Lowes certainly took the mission of finding that unusual hardware item to heart with a novel twist.  The Lowes innovation team and Fellow Robots have deployed a robot assistant in one of their California based Orchard Supply Hardware on a trial basis. The robot has the ability to capture an image of an item that a customer brings to the store, identify it, and then direct the shopper to the right location to find the item they need.

lowes-robot-1This search model takes the process a step further by having a robot greet shoppers, ask them if they need help and then lead them right to the spot where their item is located.

This is an incredible concept, and like all technology solutions in retail , there are many operational challenges to overcome:

  • Wayfinding is always challenging within the ever changing footprint of a real life retail store.  It will be important to ensure that the data here is 100% accurate on location of products and that any planogram changes are immediately passed to the system that informs the robots.   The first time the robot takes shoppers to the wrong item, they will ignore the robot for future visits.
  • Some shoppers will not want to interact with a robot for whatever reason.  This isn’t a problem, but needs to be understood and accepted.  Retail is all about choice.  Store staff need to acknowledge this solution isn’t for everyone. They should encourage usage to those who wish to use it.  It is important that the staff support the use of the robots in the stores or they will fail.  This is key.
  • Ruggedization is always a challenge in retail and hardware retail is particularly challenging based on the dirt and types of projects supported.  All technology in a retail environment requires some ongoing care and feeding for optimal usage.  Solutions with moving parts are particularly subject to failures and require ongoing maintenance.
  • Ongoing support of the robots for store staff will need to become part of the daily regimen.  Ideally the robots can recharge themselves at a station like a Roomba, but staff will need to regularly ensure that the units find their way to charging stations correctly and validate that they are still in good working order from time to time.

Whether shoppers are ready for robot assistants remains to be seen, it may be a novelty, or it may become common in the future.  Either way, it’s great to see new concepts like this being tested in retail!

All channels for retailers are viable from my perspective as long as they provide benefit to retailer and shopper and have an ROI acceptable to both.  I for one, welcome our robot overlords, and look forward to one day interfacing a point of sale engine to one of these robots so that they can complete the entire transaction and have us out the door to our self driving cars as soon as possible.

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