2010.02 | Scan those Coupons!

Given the Great Recession, one hears a great deal about coupons to encourage shoppers to buy.  Coupons have been around for quite some time, but are still surprisingly low tech in Canada.  While grocer specific coupons and offers are scanned, manufacturer driven coupons are generally accepted as part of a manual process in Canada.   This is an area ripe for automation to the benefit of retailer and consumer alike for the following reasons:

  • Cost Savings – Given that 84% of households in Canada used coupons in 2008 one would expect significant manual effort in gathering the coupons, validating the manufacturer, and tracking down the reimbursements.  With the constant attempt to reduce cost and employee effort, this represents real potential savings to a retailer.  If this effort is not completed, the retailer is providing customers discounts for certain brands out of their own pockets.
  • Throughput – While clerks still need to check expiry dates and validate the product purchased (why isn’t that automated via a central database?) scanning removes the need for at least 5-6 keystrokes per coupon – saving valuable minutes to the checkout process.  More people get through the checkout faster, and fewer people are embarassed by pulling out their coupons or frustrated by those who do so in front of them in the queue.
  • Customer Convenience – Self service solutions like kiosks or self-checkout are rendered less beneficial if coupons require manual entry.  Keying in coupon amounts represents an operation too complex for self service, (not to mention a fraud risk) reducing the amount of customers that will use it.  For those that attempt it without knowing coupons are manual, the transaction will be slowed by attendant intervention and will discourage the use of self service.  This all adds up to customer frustration which can reduce sales.
  • Fraud Reduction – While it is not possible to completely eliminate fraud, the increasing use of GS1 Databar codes may help, and if the codes don’t work on the scanner, it is easier for a clerk to refuse the coupon – minimizing potential losses.
  • Redemption Tracking – Knowing one’s customers becomes increasingly important in competitive times.  Understanding coupon redemption will enhance market basket analysis.  Enabling vendors to get an accurate, timely view of how consumers respond to an offer is extremely valuable, and can also allow for quicker response to coupon problems as data will be available to understand behaviour electronically.

While marketers, vendors and retailers are certainly on top of providing coupons via electronic means – email, web, mobile – there are few to date that are leveraging around electronic coupons: via 2d barcodes, NFC, or redemeed automatically at the checkout via a loyalty card.  While the individual values are small, coupons are important to a value conscious shopper, and the collective impact of coupon automation could be significant, so breaking the code is key.

2009.47 | Paper Free Offers Please

Given the state of the global economy, special offers have become the new normal in retail.  Retailers are increasingly able to offer relevant offers on products and services desired by individual consumers.  Consumers who are loyal in these fickle times are rewarded with great deals. 

A technology decision such as requiring a barcoded coupon can have a heavy influence on the closure of a sale.  If a physical coupon is required and forgotten, there can be disasterous concequences.  The consumer may make a special trip to a location, spend sigificant time and energy to fill a basket, and then discover that the offer can not be redeemed. 

The end result is an abandoned basket, at best.  At worst, a customer will feel cheated by the retailer for forgetting a slip of paper.  This sort of small annoyance finds its way to places like Consumerist, or onto Twitter.  While these small annoyances were not worth addressing in the past – with no facility for consumers to vent such a small issue, these items could be ignored.  These new media provide instant response, and the potential for massive backlashes never before possible.

The opportunity to bring a consumer closer to a retailer – to make them more loyal – has been transformed into a pain point for the consumer.  And why the pain point?  Why is it necessary that we all kill trees and feed toner onto paper so that a barcode can be scanned?   The reasons are myriad, and include:

  • Limiting the offer – Perhaps retailers don’t want to provide the offer to the general population, but to a select audience.  Perhaps they are limiting the stock for a BOGO or free item.  While this is sometimes the case, many offers generally encourage you to send them to friends and family and use them over and over again. 
  • Sweethearting – Retailers want to reign in associates who give discounts to people on their whim – they could give it to everyone.  Using a barcode provides an audit trail with the paper coupon and the scanning requirement that will minimize the impact of a dishonest cashier providing discounts to unqualified individuals.
  • Tracking – Any campaign requires measurement, and some campaigns may want to track where the consumer found the offer, so they can understand their multi-channel mix.  There may be different barcodes for e-mail, flyers, newspaper ads, for whatever medium was used to validate the offer source.

There has to be some way to meet these very reasonable retailer needs in some manner without the handicap of a paper coupon – a 19th century innovation.  Unfortunately, barcodes can’t be scanned directly from most mobile devices, so this problem may take some time to be resolved with technology.  While there are some amazing opportunities using 2d barcodes or coupon apps to bridge this divide that are wholeheartedly encouraged, an interim measure that works for all consumers – not just mobile users – is key to avoid the bad press on line that can sink brand capital – particularly in the online world where bad press spreads so quickly.

As always the best route is to make the technology as invisible to the consumer as possible.  Why not make the unique barcode something that can be entered manually if the client reads it off their device to the cashier?  If there are concerns about limiting or sweethearting, why not have a code that the cashiers can enter manually if a customer mentions the offer, and a different code if it is scanned?  If the coupon is fundamentally required, offer a lesser discount without it. 

No matter the answer, it’s important to consider the desired end state, and not get caught in technology for it’s own sake – be it a barcode or a mobile device.  The solution has to be simple for the consumer.

2009.40 | Service Options

Providing a new service option to consumers necessitates giving them an advantage by using it; whether the advantage is convenience, speed of service, access to special percs or many others.  If there is no benefit for the consumer, there is no incentive for them to leverage a different service option.  Any well run consumer facing organization will seek out opportunities to provide customer benefits to differentiate their business and increase the top line, while leveraging cost streamlining benefits to improve their bottom line.
Here are a few positive examples observed over the past week:
Hertz – I returned my rental car to the Vancouver Airport very early in the morning and had to drop my keys in the slot.  A sign on the box indicated that rental receipts are available for download on their website within hours.  Based on entering a drivers license or credit card number, the Hertz site provides all receipts over the past 6 months, so I was able to pull all I the statements I needed electronically to complete my travel expenses.  Benefit to the consumer?  Instant gratification, a paperless transaction, no agent to call to request the receipt, and increased convenience.  It also takes effort away from Hertz agents, reducing cost, and making staff available to people that require live assistance.  The consumer gets convenience and improved customer service, and the consumer facing organization can leverage cost savings.
Starbucks – I have been looking forward to this sort of application as the future of retail for some time, and it appears that the future is almost now!  mFoundry is working with Starbucks on a pilot that will allow mobile based payments via 2d barcodes as well as balance checking and other information for Starbucks card holders.  Once again, consumer and retailer obtain benefits from this solution.  The consumer has potential for a simplified transaction flow, shorter queues, faster service, and a novelty factor that suits a segment of the Starbucks clientele.  Starbucks increases throughput with reduced order and tender time, provides a useful and simple customer service alternative, and aligns themselves more closely with their customers by establishing a hold on one of the most important access points – their customers’ mobile device.
5494_128773267062_106593592062_3004057_6437802_nCoca-Cola – I picked up the most recent Fast Company magazine, and read the lead article on Coca-Cola’s David Butler last week. A key component of the article concerns the new Coca-Cola Freestyle soda fountain.   In contrast to traditional self service soda fountains located in Quick Service restaurants, the new footprint boasts a digital LCD interface and technology that shrinks the required raw materials allowing users to access over 100 beverage choices instead of the 6 or 8 generally available today.   The benefit to the consumer in this case is the vastly expanded product selection.  The retailer (and manufacturer) benefit is providing more product selection in the same store footprint, and the capability of leveraging the electronic brain of the soda fountain to ascertain popularity of the beverage options – providing useful and as yet unmined sources of data about consumer preferences in this segment.

2009.24 | Mobile Checkout with GS1 Databar

GS1 Databar has been looking for common acceptance for years, and a recent article in the NYT discussed how ‘The Bar Code is Taking a Leap Forward and GS1 Databar may yet reach a Plateau of Productivity with its usage for coupons on mobile.

Hopefully mobile can be one impetus to drive the usage of GS1 Databar, and it will see the kind of acceptance that has driven other symbologies like 2D barcodes or to a much lesser extent, Microsoft Tag. There are a number of significant potential benefits to be reaped by consumer facing organizations that can leverage these codes, including: increased throughput, reduced shrink, improved food safety, and the potential for increased sales from consumers’ demand for data.

The greater challenge is passing this data from the real world to the pocket of the consumer – a mobile platform today. While Metro AG has some great ideas (thanks, Michael) on how to do this using their mobile assistant and on customers’ own mobile devices, the challenges of a successful implementation are very real and very difficult.

Ideally, enlightened consumers could scan their own purchases as they shop, but there are some incompatabilities between consumer behaviour and the technology that can drive issues of shrink – intentional or not. The inherent slowness of using a camera for barcodes versus a laser or LED scanner, the complex multiple step shopping processes (scan with phone, place on atm reader, pay with phone), and the essential lack of any security limit this excellent effort as a stepping stone towards a more complete future solution.

2009.22 | Traveling

I traveled from Toronto to Vancouver to visit a few clients last week, so the technology around travel was certainly on my mind. So many innovations have hit travel in the past decade that it is incredible to think how much things have changed.
Check-in Kiosks, Web Check-in, and Mobile Check-in have all streamlined the queuing experience regular travelers know so well. While much improved the area is still ripe for additional innovation. Think about the number of transactions at an airport. Where else do we compact so many transactions into one place in such a short time as a captive audience? What could we do to improve upon an already much improved experience? I had a few thoughts while on the road.
Organization – There are various apps that help streamline the travel experience. There are a few basic options for this today, like Tripit, TravelTracker, or Travelocity. Some tradeoffs are made on these solutions. An online offering means being up to date with changes, it also means $3/MB for Canadians traveling to the US. An offline offering means changes may not be shown on your itinerary. In future releases, it would make life simpler to have a mobile check-in button, or even better, a place to store all of the 2d barcodes so they are not accidentally deleted or lost in email or photo areas of the phone.

air_canada_2d Boarding Pass Generation – On my trip, I used web-checkin and had the boarding pass sent to my iPhone as a 2d barcode. While convenient, there is an opportunity to build on this. For one thing, I  don’t know my credit card number or Air Canada Aeroplan Account from memory, and I certainly don’t know my itinerary number. This dissuades me from using mobile check-in in all but the direst situations, and I’m a bleeding edge mobile user. Typing the last 4 digits or letting the program validate the itinerary number on the device would suffice. Even better, using a program like 1Password to pass the information to the airline check-in could also work, much like Google Toolbar Auto fill. The web is fine at home or at the hotel, but when one is only traveling for the day, or the web is unavailable, using mobile checkin should be a simple option.

Security and Boarding – Nothing seems to make security in an airport more uncomfortable than handling a mobile device with their rubber gloves. A barcode scanner that passengers can scan at Security and Boarding so staff don’t have to handle any devices or boarding passes is a better alternative. This provides consistent processes, improved traveler tracking within the airport, less opportunity for a misread boarding pass, and less effort for staff to interpret the information on the miniscule screen of the latest gadget. An intervention may be necessary and staff can deal with the exceptions, providing better throughput. [Update: 5/27/09 While traveling through Montreal (YUL), there was a scanner to scan my own boarding pass. Progress!]

Flight Services – A truly interactive mobile platform with easy access buttons to get feedback on specific issues and a chat function could provide airlines with an incredible customer management tool including the ability to:

  • allow passengers to notify if they are late or unable to make the flight so that the flight can depart, or a seat can be given for standby
  • send text message notifications of flight changes
  • automatically update itineraries if there are cancellations with all preferences automatically applied, and special messages outlined (free airmiles, lounge access, directions to their gate, etc).
  • report lost luggage
  • provide a platform for customers with problems to voice their concerns and opinions and get immediate feedback

With so many millions of happy travelers passing through airports every year, this provides an opportunity to allay the loud concerns of the few major problems, bringing the attention to those who can make a difference quickly. There are tools to do this today, but they are not well advertised or utilized.moverwallet

Car Rental and Hotel Checkin Hertz’s kiosks and Hyatt certainly go in the right direction. A 2d barcode reader would be ideal so mobile devices can be used instead of a printout. Even better, an NFC credit card used to book the trip could make the transaction wireless and avoid the 2d barcode. I already have an NFC credit card, even if I don’t have an NFC mobile phone, which would be ideal. Why not scan the card for pickup and payment? For hotel, the NFC credit card can potentially be used as the room key as well, so the room could be opened without even removing the card from one’s wallet.

Further down the road, perhaps wifi could be used as it is used with the recent ‘mover’ iphone application. It looks like a mini version of Microsoft Surface. A wallet would show a number of cards sitting on the screen and a swipe of the finger slides the appropriate card towards the kiosk and a pin or signature could be entered on the kiosk.

With all of these solutions, it comes down to two things that drive every self service solution: utility and simplicity. If a solution is useful and easy to use, it will gain populartity and usage. It will be interesting to see which solutions meet those criteria in travel over the next few years and how much more convenient it will become.

2009.14 | Barcodes | Changing Shoppers | Cards

Barcodes Revisited – NCR pretty much wrote the book on barcodes, but they are constantly evolving, with GS1 Databar and its myriad flavours. Being able to read barcodes and interact with data from the real world with the mobile is growing easier, as my post on SnapTell and ShopSavvy explained, and 2D barcodes and Microsoft Tag technology are also driving it along. Taking it a step further, instead of pointing to something else, some barcodes can contain the content directly.

Changing Shoppers – A recent Time article talked about some changes in today’s shoppers, including their use of technology to comparison shop, the glut of stores in America, and the impact on retailers today.

Cards Technology – The plethora of plastic card products overwhelming the world cannot be ignored. Gift cards, pre-paid mobile phone cards, chip and pin cards, NFC cards, and RFID cards of all stripes are part of our changing retail landscape. There are some interesting twists on the technology that I’ve been looking at lately. There are gift card printers that allow plastic cards to be printed with different retailer logos, values, pictures and messages on them. There are new RFID cards that are ONLY activated when the user applies pressure to avoid security issues. Concerned about the ecological impact of plastic cards on the environment? New biodegradable Envirocards avoid landfills being filled with cards for millions of years.

2009.05 | Interac Chip

Interac Chip – Chip continues to move forward in Canada. After trials in Kitchener-Waterloo in late 2008, and the increasing use of Visa chip cards, Interac is starting to make noise about getting chip cards into the real world. This means changes to pinpads at POS and card readers on ATM units in the coming months and years. Check out the details.

Vending and Media Convergence – With the increasingly lower cost of technology, retail channels are converging ever faster. Look at where vending machines are now, and where they are going. The line between digital signage, POS, vending machines and media in the store is increasingly blurring.

Ralph Lauren Mobile Store – I talk about moving to the “store in the pocket” quite a lot with friends and clients, and Ralph Lauren is trying to move that way with their new mobile site. I don’t know if this is the right type of store for mobile, but may be more likely to fit the demographic than the one Sears put in place. I like the way they have integrated the 2d barcode into the site, and their links to a reader. It’s important to have the consistent customer experience as well as the link between sites, and they are making that effort.

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