2010.44 | Using the Consumer’s Device

As the dynamic for retailers shifts from a B2C model (where where the business dictates how consumers will interface to a retailer) to a C2B model (where consumers can use any number of platforms do business with a retailer), there are some very interesting technology applications coming to the fore that attempt to take advantage of the changes. 

This video from the shop.org annual summit highlights this vision of the future for retailing with every potential touchpoint as an opportunity to sell.

Some examples of retailers leveraging :

Starbucks Wifi Portal – When you login to the free wifi at Starbucks in the US, the new Starbucks Digital Network is rolling out that provides users access to specially selected content, including six channels around News, Entertainment, Wellness, Business and Careers, My Neighbourhood, and Starbucks.  Understanding that half of their customers are using mobile devices in the store, Starbucks are optimizing this experience for those users.  Starbucks provides another reason to visit their sites, while providing other potential revenue opportunities through media sales/fees/commissions.  This seems like a real win for everyone – consumers, content providers and Starbucks. 

Concierge Service in Apple Stores – Apple appears to be upgrading their Genius bar system whereby customers arriving at Apple Stores can register, be placed in a queue for assistance, and even see the name and a picture of  their Genius.  Given the increasingly crowded and crazy environment at an Apple store, this is a great use of a device the client is likely to own, while providing a valuable service and re-inforcing the Apple brand.

Store Scanning – Unlike my previous post where retailers are scanning mobile devices, there are a wide array of solutions for consumers to use their mobiles to scan items in stores.  Two particular interesting examples are the upgrade to the Tesco iPhone app that allows for barcode reading capability to add to orders, and Aislebuyer, a standalone system that lets customers scan in stores and check out on their own.

iPad Apps – Companies like Gap, Victoria’s Secret, Amazon Windowshop, and more are releasing iPad apps that provide a unique interaction point that is special to their brand, provides an interface that the customer is asking for, and leverages a consumer device as opposed to having to invest in their own networks.

Mobile Payment and Couponing – Starbucks has been accepting mobile payments through their mobile apps and a 2d barcode scanner since late last year, but are now rolling it out in New York – where solutions like this can start to enter the mainstream.  Target has been doing the same with coupons since the spring.  People notice that they lose their wallet after a day – their mobile phone they notice missing in an hour.  What’s more important?  These organizations are leveraging an area of demand, and smartly sidestepping all of the logistical nightmares of mobile phone payments to give themselves an early adopter advantage.

All of these examples are clever efforts to turn the C2B model to a business advantage for these organizations, and a glimpse into how Consumers will interact with retailers in the future – wherever they want – but more so.


2010.43 | Gold ATM

Given the frenzy around investing in gold over past months, it isn’t surprising that some enterprising individuals are now offering the opportunity to purchase gold from a vending machine.  A german company is offering a franchise program where vending machines that dispense gold are placed in what one must assume are secure shopping areas.

This is just one example of how self service and vending are moving to all facets of society, including the most affluent.

2010.42 | Scanning Barcodes From a Mobile Screen

Misconceptions abound about scanning the screens of mobile devices.

There are a number of different ways of passing data from a mobile device to another platform in a store environment – 2D barcodes, Microsoft Tag, NFC, Bluetooth, and via Apps – the possiblities are quite broad and are dependent on the application.

Applications in a store environment most often involve passing loyalty or coupon information from a mobile device to a point of sale (POS).  The method that arises most in conversation is that which would seem most intuitive to the general population.  Can one scan a barcode from the screen of a mobile phone with a scanner at the point of sale?

The answer: it depends.  Consider the following examples:

Example 1: A customer approaches a Point of Sale in a store with an Apple iPhone.  The customer has scanned an image of their loyalty card into their phone complete with a traditional linear barcode from the back of the physical loyalty card.  The cashier has a Handheld Scanner at the POS and attempts to scan the customer’s screen to enter their loyalty information into the system…  It won’t work.   A traditional handheld or even bioptic scanner will not reliably capture a barcode from the screen of a regular mobile device’s screen.   I have personally attempted it many times, in many retail situations with various scanners and mobile devices and screens in stores and in lab environments.  The screen is too reflective or does not pick up the contrast in the bars and spaces, no matter how large or bright the image may be.  (It may give a positive scan once in a while, but not consistently.) I’ve heard that some iPhone apps get around that by showing the images in certain ways, but I’ve never seen it work live or via any online searching.

Example 2: A customer approaches the boarding gate at an airline terminal with a Blackberry Torch.  The customer has downloaded an electronic boarding pass to their phone complete with a 2d barcode.  The boarding agent has a Handheld Scanner with a 2d Imager built into it.  The customer holds out their device, and the agent scans it with the imager.  It will work.   In this instance, though the situation appears exactly the same as the first example, the big difference is the the use of the 2d Imager and 2d barcode.  A 2d Imager is essentially a camera – better suited to identifying the 2d barcode on the mobile device.

The implication of the formulas above is that the great majority of technology in place at current points of sale will not read barcodes from a mobile device.  Most retailers wishing to take advantage of barcode reading from mobile devices will need to invest in new scanning devices.

NOTE:  The imager will also read a 1D traditional barcode from the mobile screen.  The barcode does not have to be a 2D barcode.

2010.41 | Introducing New Technology

Macy's Magic Fitting RoomMacy’s Magic Fitting Room is working to close the gap between the digital and real world experience at the stores.  The limited time installation includes a large scale multi-touch screen that allows customers to “try-on” clothes virtually and send out the resulting images to various social media platforms.

One must applaud the ingenuity in trying something new with this technology, and am curious as to their future intent with it.   I wonder if this could represent a future home installation, somewhat like Virtual Mirror.

The solution is obviously not aimed at my demographic, as I don’t see the point in trying something on ‘virtually’. Why not try on the real thing?  The clients are standing right near all of the product anyway.  With women’s fashions, my understanding is that while the look is important, the fit of the item is a huge issue.  Women’s clothing presents significant variation in fit from garment to garment and the way the clothing hangs from the body can be very different than any virtual image you see on a screen.  The retailer may also be encouraging a customer to try on a product that is not available in the customers’ size, meaning they have invested time and effort to find something that they can’t have.

As far as sharing anything on social media, most women I know (beyond their high school prom) intend to make an entrance with a new ensemble.  They are hardly likely to broadcast how they look in a new outfit to all of their friends before they even buy it; especially considering the fact that many of their social media ‘friends’ will probably be at any event they are purchasing for.  It could take away from the thrill of a new purchase.

Now, I understand that there are demographics that are not mine, and this solution may be just what that demographic have been looking for.  I haven’t attempted use of the solution either, being located away from New York, so all of these points may be well answered by the solution.

This type of implementation is generally more of a novelty than a true long term solution, which brings up the ongoing question in Retail Technology – what is the right balance between new technology and operational benefit?  How does a retailer know if they should proceed with a solution as a part of their default store technology moving forward.  Here are a few hints:

ROI – Unless technology is being used for PR or to suit a government requirement, there are only two ways to improve a business, retail or not – increase revenue or decrease costs.  These potential benefits need to be balanced with the capital and operating costs of any new solution.  Everyone knows that crystal balls are rare, so the revenue win is tough to sell internally without some serious proof. Costs are easier to justify as the logic is generally quite obvious – one can make a store remove a resource or redeploy it, and those costs are known and if reduced can be allocated to the project.  If we look at the Magic Fitting Room, it appears that revenue uptick is the key sell here.  The challenge will be whether what works in New York City will translate across the country and whether the business will sign up for the increase in their revenue objective if the solution is implemented.  The answer could well be yes, but sober second thought must come into the picture to ensure that long term benefits are fully analyzed prior to implementation.

Long Term Viability – iPads, Multitouch Screens, Large Format Widescreens and Social Media are the items I hear about a great deal when I talk to retailers, and it’s not surprising as that’s what interests society at large about technology.  These are all sexy solutions with tangible and visibly appealing assets to show off in stores.  I am personally a huge fan of all of these things, but consider a few questions:  Are these products built to be used in a retail environment for many years?  (Ever dropped an iPad?) Are these platforms proven for use in a retail environment with all of the problems of dust, dirt, thousands of touches, impatient and untrained customers, coffee spills, and more?  If the fundamental functionality of a solution is around sharing pictures on Facebook and Twitter, what about the dependency on those changing platforms moving forward?  Once again, the solution may well be worth it, but retailers must consider the fact that implementing solutions like this is costly and given today’s increasing pace of change, retail customers will now bring technology with them to the store that will outpace what can be put in the store.  Whatever is used, it’s important to invest in commercial grade solutions and to try to leverage whatever devices the consumer brings with them where viable and appropriate to minimize investment.

Ongoing Support – There are two sides to this one.  First, on the traditional break/fix side of the equation, what are the costs going to be?  The cost of an iPad approaches the cost of a regular Point of Sale eBox.  It is unlikely that an iPad will last the 7-12 years a retailer will want from a POS, and depending on the situation, it is either a non-repairable or swappable item on site.  If it is swappable, an inventory of iPads will need to be kept available.  While certainly answerable, these issues need to be considered, and all costs carefully accounted for.  Secondly, these sorts of media rich platforms have a cost to  keep them current. In order to keep consumer interest the media will need to be fresh – new commercials, new products, and updated offers and promotions. This is always the hardest part of media rich solutions and social media – it essentially requires ongoing resources to be successful – something people may not have time for, and for which retailers may not be well organized.  While this may be a terrific outlet for marketing, do they have the people and resources to update the solution?  Most retailers don’t keep this kind of creative talent on staff.  The cost of these creative campaigns needs to be considered in the balance of benefits.

Fit to Demographic – Does the platform suit the targeted market of the retailer?  42% of Canadians are on Facebook, but are they the 42% that buy from your store?  Is your average senior citizen on ‘The Twitter’? Are the platforms user friendly? Most people will give you a puzzled look.  The iPad is easy to use, a 2 year old loves it.  I agree, but how many users beyond a certain age and background show interest or comfort in pinching to zoom or using any multi-touch interface elements?  The Magic Fitting Room is in NYC full of young, moneyed professionals carrying smartphones; it probably fits that situation.  It is important to consider the fit of a solution across an entire chain.

Operational Integration – The most important and often overlooked solution element is how it fits into the ongoing operations of a retailer site.  Does the solution ensure that product offered is on site?  Does it direct customers to the right locations and resources in a store?  Is the solution updated as situations change?  If there are any inconsistencies in the solution that put the on-site staff in an awkward position it doesn’t allow for a consistent and flawless shopping experience and on-site staff will distance themselves from it to avoid the wrath and complaints of customers.  It’s important to be clear to on-site staff as to the functionality – what it does and doesn’t do.  It’s also important to underscore to staff the upper management commitment to a solution to ensure its long term use and life.

Every consumer facing organization has to make challenging decisions on technology.  Each organization has its own needs and requirements – make sure all of the elements are considered.  Technology could well be the answer.

2010.40 | FCUK’s Youtique

Yet another channel for retail is now open with the recent initiation of FCUK’s “Youtique” on Youtube.  This channel allows customers and potential customers to watch videos highlighting FCUK fashions presented by a hostess.  At the end of each clip, the viewer is provided with an option to view other fashion selections depending on the occasion for which they are dressing.  There is also a tagged video catalogue at the end of each clip that allows the viewer to click on the item of interest directly on the model and buy it from the FCUK website.

What makes this channel all the more interesting is that at some point, we can expect that this sort of content will be available on mobile devices, PC’s, and on TV’s.  If Nick Bilton’s 1-2-10 [= distance from each type of screen – mobile=1 foot, PC=2 feet, TV=10 feet] rules drive how the interface would change by platform to suit the needs of the user, this would provide a very powerful curated retail experience for potential customers in the place and manner of their choosing.

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