2010.51 | Gift Giving Technology

‘Tis the season for gift giving, and gift giving itself is not above a technological upgrade. The ubiquity of gift cards today is easy to overlook.  They have become so mainstream it can be easy to forget how recently gift certificates were reverently pulled from under a desk, signed by the customer and embossed or signed at the store.   Everybody knows about giftcards, and you can’t escape them.   Not only can you buy them for your favourite stores, but gift card malls abound at retailers, more often seen than not.  There are gift card malls online.  It’s possible to buy gift cards for any retailer you can imagine.  It’s even possible to get gift cards for life experiences like driving a race car, or flying an air combat mission.  There are so many of them, that there are gift card exchanges online where cards can be bought and sold in an open market.

What about some new twists on gift cards?  How is technology being leveraged even further than moving a paper certificate to a plastic card?

Emailing gifts is increasingly common.  Papa Johns uses CashStar to allow their customers to send the gift of Pizza via email.  Staples is doing something similar.   Netflix.ca and Zip.ca also have gift options to allow customers to provide gift subscriptions via email.  Email is sent on date requested by customer, and gift recipient can register for the movies they want and watch online (Netflix) or receive DVDs in the mail for rental (Zip.ca).

Facebook as a gifting venue is moving in a few ways.  Traditional gift cards can be purchased from retailers on facebook, but Facebook giftcards with Facebook credit values can now be purchased at major retailers – or even by cashing in your coins at Coinstar.  These Facebook credits can buy a wide variety of electronic goodies like electronic games and items within the games to activate features and levels. 

Amazon is taking this electronic gift giving a step further.  Instead of emailing a giftcard, Amazon allows customers to Give Kindle Books via email.  Customers select the ebook they wish to gift, select ‘give as gift’, make their payment, and an email is sent to the gift recipient.  The recipient clicks on the et your Kindle book gift now and the book goes directly into their library.  No gift card redemption, no shipping, no customes, no wrapping and warp speed delivery.  Who could ask for more?  Merry Christmas, all!

2010.47 | Retail Mobile is Exploding

Not that it’s a surprise to anyone, but the movement to mobile for retail is really picking up as of late. While many retailers are experimenting with their own apps, those that don’t take part are likely to get dragged into the mobile world whether they want to do so or not.

Paypal is piloting a mobile payment scheme through their PayPal Local program in partnership with Bling Nation. Under this program, NFC stickers are mailed out to those who enrol and those NFC tags are connected to Paypal accounts, effectively allowing users to link their payments to their mobile device instead of their wallet.  While the program is only a trial it’s an interesting potential workaround to the usual debit and credit electronic payment infrastructure.  To simplify the process, Bling Nation users activate through a Facebook App.  Interesting choice.

Self Scanning apps like ShopSavvy and RedLaser are upping the ante with new functionality and Amazon’s own app is scanning now too to allow customers to price match in stores.

Sounds like consumers want mobile websites too.  The trick is figuring out what that means.

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.

2010.30 | Barcodes for Consumers

Barcodes started off as a tool for retailers to use to avoid tagging product with prices, improving throughput at the checkout, fine tuning inventory control, and reducing shrink.   How times have changed.

Consider the following examples:

  • While mobile solutions like foursquare allow for check-ins at establishments including retailers, Booyah‘s MyTown is now providing product check-ins.  Consumers can scan products with their mobiles using the app and make a game of it to see what comes up.  Users can unlock items in a virtual world, or potentially a coupon for what they have scanned.
  • As reported by PSFK, Food52, a recipe blog, is using stickybits to allow users of their site to scan products at grocery stores to bring up recipes for those ingredients on their mobiles.    Essentially stickybits is a mobile application for iPhone or android that ties barcodes to whatever you want – a website, a video – whatever you like – even a recipe database as Food52 has done.

What this comes down to with retailers is a change of control.  Retailers traditionally controlled information and all aspects of how the interaction occurred between the business and the consumer.  Now the consumer is gaining a great deal of control over the interaction using tools like those discussed above.

It’s similar to the beginning of file sharing systems like napster which turned the music industry on its head. While physical items like t-shirts are not able to be shared as data files (yet) like music and video can be, electronic devices and gaming are finding ways to spread into the physical world and have an impact on how products can be sold that is beyond the control of retailers and manufacturers.  Luckily retailers are attempting to take advantage of these new interfaces.

2010.15 | Multitouch Kiosks

Amazon Window ShopGiven the recent excitement around the iPad launch, I’ve had some interest from customers in a multitouch type kiosk for use in retail environments.  While it sounds like an awesome idea, and is sure to be an exciting idea to the marketing team, there are some considerations for a kiosk that give me pause on installing a multitouch kiosk in a retail environment at this point. 

First, consider the application look and feel.  Both Web 2.0 and Apple have definitely raised the bar as far as user experience is concerned.  There are now some incredible looking applications and interfaces available, and as that is the common consumer experience today, retailers want to keep pace.  Nobody is satisfied with traditional kiosk applications that look like Windows XP anymore, and they shouldn’t be.   What retailers want to be put in front of their consumers in a store is something like Amazon’s Windowshop. I heartily agree with providing a unique, entertaining and functional UI for a kiosk solution.  It’s engaging, entertaining and fun.  It’s retail.  But is a multitouch kiosk required to deliver it?

Platforms like Adobe Flash and HTML5 make it possible to provide the same sort of user experience as an Apple solution, with movements that mirror the physical world, use shiny glassy buttons and provide images of product swooshing around the screen.  This can be done without multi-touch.  This look and feel is a big part of the draw for marketing departments, provides a lot of the wow factor, and does not require multitouch.

Second, consider the audience for a retail kiosk – the masses.  Multitouch works well on the iPhone.  You can zoom on photos, you can drag icons, you can double tap to zoom.  Macbooks use multi-touch as well.  Two fingers on the pad allows for image rotation, dragging four fingers down the pad will move apps aside to reveal the desktop. These capabilities are useful, but I would argue that they are not yet embedded in the collective consciousness and are only recognizable to power users.  While we throw around the term ‘intuitive’, it’s really the functionality to which people are accustomed.   Is double clicking with a mouse intuitive?  Is right clicking?  I have had a hard time with some new users to PCs that drag their icons all over the screen.  Many people don’t even know that they can scroll on their PCs by running their finger along the side and bottom of the touchpad.  I have a hard time believing that today’s ‘average consumer’ is going to grasp a great deal more than touching the screen the way they do today.  That may change with the iPad revolution that many pundits are calling for, but until that time, keeping an interface simple is key to an effective kiosk solution.  Multitouch does not have any visual indicators of controls on the screen like scroll buttons, arrows and the like.  

Finally, it’s important to consider retail hardening.  Multitouch is relatively new to retail self service.  While there are a number of consumer grade solutions with touch screens (the HP TouchSmart PC line is a great example), it is important to use a commercial grade kiosk solution in a retail environment.  Solutions like the ones I deal with every day are built to be used in a retail environment – they are ruggedized, are tested for vibration and EMF, and are built to handle spills and dusty environments.  To ensure the best ROI, it is key to invest in a retail hardened platform.  There are a few on the market, but they are not yet common.

Multitouch is great technology and is the future.  The tough part of leveraging it in a retail environment is finding the right use for it and making it simple for average consumers to use.  Given the creativity and ideas to date, I’m sure we can look forward to some ground breaking kiosk applications.

2010.10 | Social Media for Special Events

Retailers have been leveraging the popularity of special events to sell more goods for as long as there has been retail.  The pervasiveness and immediacy of social media now presents a greater opportunity for retailers to leverage the excitement around special events.  The incredible potential of leveraging social media has been highlighted with the recent 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and by the 2010 Oscars.

What are the benefits of social media over traditional methods (print, television, radio, email) of providing special event offers and coverage?

  • Social Media can quickly attract customers to deals related to special events in a timely and effective manner.  In the past, retailers may leverage a small display in a store with some signage and some topical items, but that relied upon the fact that customers would have to be in the store to capture them.  In email, the opportunity may be lost in the user’s inbox. With the use of a twitter feed, or a facebook update, customers that are part of the retailer community will be open to hear the connection between a special event and a retailer.  Establishing the shared passion of a brand and a consumer can forge a bond for long term sales, as well as drive immediate traffic with a good posting that connects an offer with a short term special event like Canada Reads.
  • Retail organizations can leverage special interest groups into sales by getting their eyes during a special event.  IMDB tweeted all of the winners, and posted all of them on their start page. Followers are now one click away from the links to the winners, and all of the details, including very very soft sell links to Amazon to buy the DVDs and books.   Amazon owns IMDB and it does a great job catering to a very devoted film audience and is smart enough to make it easy to buy, but not overshadow the information that film lovers get from the site.
  • Social Media allows consumers to take part in a discussion where their input is appreciated, building a closer alignment with the brand.
  • Social Media shows the discussion taking place – effectively customers build the dialog and the content, and retailers can look at the customer interest to build offers and adjust the brand to suit their customers interests. Sepphora Product Reviews is a great example of how that dialog can be built.

Social Media allows for quick, timely campaigns that would never happen in other media.  They are very cost effective, can be timely (sent out right after a game winning goal perhaps), and don’t require extensive planning. Given the low cost of social media and the potential upside, expect a great deal more of this to take place.

2010.01 | eBooks > Physical Books | Mobile POS Ideas

eBooks > Physical Books – Amazon sold more ebooks than physical books on Christmas day.  While, as the article says, this was obviously driven by the fact that many people who received Kindles as gifts were purchasing books, and few people are likely to shop on Christmas versus many other days of the year, it is still a watershed moment.  This event strongly points to the Kindle as a potential iPod for books, and to a trend that may actually see consumers finally lean more towards electronic devices for reading media.

More importantly to book retailers, the reader itself represents a cheap, simple, direct channel right into the pocketbooks of consumers.  (Convenience, recommendations, 7×24 availability, and immediate satisfaction..what more could one ask for?)

The jury is still out, but this is an encouraging development for the Kindle and e-readers in general.  Add to the eBook discussions all of the incredible scuttlebutt of the continuously rumoured Apple Tablet, and we can expect lots of talk on electronic reading in general across the board.

Mobile POS Ideas – More potential for POS and mobile solutions came to the fore of late.  Of particular interest, more iPhone credit card readers, and movie theatres leveraging a mobile POS platform. While it’s still early days, and functionality and reliability leave a lot to be desired at present, look to this technology to become increasingly common in appropriate consumer facing places of business.

2009.48 | Use a ‘Feisty Mango’ to Purchase!

With the usual year end rush of Christmas season, the constant opening of the wallet brings payments to mind once again.

Amazon’s site now boasts Amazon PayPhrase as a payment option. In a clever twist on an old solution, they allow users to register user defined or automatically generated phrases to credit cards and shipping addresses already on file. To purchase an item, the consumer types in their PayPhrase, reviews and submits their order on the next page, and waits for their purchases to arrive. The service can also be set so that family members can purchase with their own PayPhrase within limits set by the cardholder.

With it is only the very slightest of twists, every keystroke saved removes an obstacle to a sale. It is also much easier to remember a phrase than it is to remember a login and password. On the surface it appears to be a convenient option for consumers while providing a reasonable amount of security for the card companies and retailers. 

Perhaps someday we can expect an amazon mashup with iLane to allow us to pay with a phrase while we drive down the highway. But will it be legal?

2009.11 | “New” New Media | Mobile Stores | Changing Gaming

Not everyone is cutting and slashing when it comes to new ideas in this challenging retail environment.

New new media – with the release of Kindle 2 people seem to be taking e-books seriously. Trying to place Amazon as the iTunes of e-books doesn’t seem like a bad plan given their success. While music stores were slow to adopt digital delivery channels, it doesn’t look like books will make the same mistake. Indigo started their shortcovers.com store. Not to be outdone in the US, Barnes and Noble is buying Fictionwise to stay in the race.

Mobile Store Market – Given the incredible growth of the mobile market it’s no surprise that there are plenty of players looking to capitalize. Specialization is coming into it – Best Buy has Best Buy Mobile stores in Canada for example. Now word comes this week that Bell Canada has purchased The Source stores in Canada. While Bell already has a sizable store footprint mainly in Ontario and Quebec with Bell World and Espace Bell, expect them to build on that strength geographically and by obtaining revenue and control over gadgets that can access their core service offerings. With increasing saturation in wireless, you have to wonder if owning all your own outlets and not having to pay dealers could help the bottom line. It’s a bold move in a downturn to increase your stake as a retailer, but it’s always better to buy when prices are low.

Changing GamingGamefly’s first kiosk went in this week. As the first entry by a company that offers a subscription service, this offers a potentially interesting twist, providing them a middle ground between an online and bricks and mortar presence, and a platform with the potential to mix subscription and on-demand services – a new angle in this business.

2009.08 | Twitter 2 | Kindle 2 | Kill POS

Twitter Revisited – I referenced Twitter back in week 2 as an emerging trend for retailers and it only keeps growing. I finally opened a twitter account myself, just to see what the hype was about. I’m not sure if it will be a big deal in the long run or not, but I certainly see the potential from many articles. Here’s the gist in my mind: the individual tweets don’t mean much; they’re quite often garbage in fact, but searching on the aggregate may just be the next wave of web 2.0. Twitter can provide timely personal product research and reviews, it can tell you what people are talking about at any given time, it can provide a window into world events before the news, it can even be a way to strengthen the brand and enhance the multi-channel experience.

Kindle 2 – Amazon released their new version of the Kindle e-book reader this week. For the unitiated, the kindle is a very compact device that allows for electronic books to be downloaded directly over cellular to the unit in 60 seconds or less. It can hold hundreds of books, and can access newspapers and blogs. It uses e-ink electronic paper display to make it appear more like a book. There are no monthly fees for the access to the network, but you have to buy your books from Amazon (it will read other formats, but for over the air you are stuck with Amazon). Books are available more cheaply than the paper versions. The unit will convert the books to speech and read them to you over headphones, which has copyright people scratching their heads. Basically, Amazon have targeted an iTunes/iPod like setup for books and other media, and have improved on it slightly with their new solution. It remains to be seen if the book people have the same wonderful foresight as the music and movie industries around electronic content distribution. As always, technology is not holding back innovation. Money, fear and the status quo hold back innovation.

Kill POS – The more I go through stores, the more I wonder why we haven’t been able to kill the traditional POS. By that I mean the unfortunately disinterested associate who stands behind the counter and tries to ignore me as I wave my product and payment at them. I see instances of that occuring today – I buy music from iTunes or other online stores, I use selfcheckout when it is available, and these are great steps – but I look forward to it going further.

For example, I go to the Apple Store to buy an Airport Express to hook my pc to my stereo. A ‘Genius’ – I’ll use that loosely, but hey – that’s what Apple calls them – comes over and engages me in a discussion of the product and what I might like to do with it. He answers my question on cable requirements, we discuss iphone apps, technology trends and the like, and I decide to buy the unit. He pulls out his wireless unit, scans the product, swipes my card and asks me how I would like my receipt. I tell him to email it, and he does. No bag required thanks. We exchange pleasantries and I leave. That wasn’t a task – I enjoyed it. I was engaged by a person who had a shared interest, and we completed the transaction like we were buddies on the street. The transaction extends my loyalty of the brand to a personal relationship.  It’s definitely not for every retail environment, but it’s a goal.

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