2012.01 | Mobile Coupons in 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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