2013.12 | Retail Tech Miscellany Too

w680 (1)Unusual SXSW Tech – SXSW had some crazy technology on display at their 2013 event.  The best thing about events like SXSW is they let imaginations run wild.  My favourite idea was a solution at the portable toilets.  When someone entered the facility, a projector showed a life size traditional washroom stick person either standing or sitting directly on the door along with a timer indicating how long they had been in there.  While this installation is completely crazy, it may actually help with equitable distribution of temporary washroom facilities like this one by helping people queue in the right places.  A similar installation in a change room environment could be a great way to jazz up the experience of trying on new outfits.

Grocery Crowdsourcing – I’ve found that if you are willing to track down the manager at a grocery store and tell them you want a product they don’t have, they will try to get it or you.  Danish Supermarket Superbrugsen makes that even easier by putting a form on their website, where customers can request new local products and suppliers.  This eases the process for consumers to ask for what they want, and it provides free scouting to the buyers.

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 10.49.17 PM

No Barcodes Needed – Tokyo bakery Donq has been testing a point of sale system that identifies products without barcodes.  Customers put their items on a white tray, and the tray is placed under a camera that can recognize the shape of the products and quickly and automatically tally the total cost of the items. As imagers get smaller and cheaper and the image recognition improves, we can expect to see more of these sorts of systems. via Wired Magazine – April 2013

Fake Fingers – There is a report that some doctors in Brazil have been beating their time clock by using silicon fingers moulded from colleagues fingers.  Many retailers use biometrics for workforce management and logging into systems, and while it seems unlikely that employees would go to such lengths, it doesn’t hurt to know that these sorts of scams exist.  It also  highlights a reason why fingerprint payment systems like Paytango may have had a hard time getting off the ground if their solution doesn’t address these issues.

2013.02 | 2D Codes and Point of Service

barcode2D barcodes are often involved in a question someone will ask me about point of service hardware and software.  The general question: We are updating our POS system and/or scanner.  Can your scanner read 2D barcodes?  I want to be sure I am prepared for whatever solution operations or marketing may request.

This 2D concern is very much tied to another question I first broached it in 2010 when I discussed how to scan from mobile phone screens.  At that point the question of possibility was the biggest one.  Retailers, marketers and technology companies are still sorting out the best way to interact with mobile devices.

In 2013, the short answer is often: “Yes, the scanner will read 2D barcodes”.  Newer scanners have imagers (small cameras) built into them that allow the scanners to reliably scan a traditional 1D code from the reflective surface of a mobile screen.  Those same imagers built into the scanners can also read 2D barcodes – whether they are on paper or on a mobile device screen.  If your organization is going to buy scanners, I wholeheartedly recommend purchasing a unit with either an imager upgrade option, or better yet, the imager already included in the unit.

So – most retail point of service scanners have the ability to read traditional 1D barcodes and 2D barcodes.  In order to scan those codes, the scanners need to be programmed to read the codes chosen by the retailer for reading.  That means we can turn on and off the types of codes we want to read.

Now that we have answered the question of CAN a scanner read a 2D barcode at Point of Service, let’s examine whether a scanner SHOULD be used to read 2D barcodes at point of service.

I generally do NOT recommend activating 2D barcode reading on scanners at the point of service, however, if 2D barcodes are to be activated for scanning, the usage and type needs to be clearly understood and planned upon well in advance.

First, consider the characteristics of the code types used for retail at the very basic level:

1D barcode characteristics:

  • 115879barcodedemoprovide limited information: only a few digits
  • used to identify a product or item in a store by matching the barcode to a product in a database
  • scans very quickly
  • mostly scanned by retailers (though increasingly scanned by consumers; see showrooming)

These codes are about simple and speeding transactions.

2D barcode characteristics:

  • can encode a longer string of informationbarcode
  • used for secure items like ticketing /payment/coupons – used to direct scanners to a URL
  • scan a bit slower
  • mostly scanned by consumers with a mobile device (though sometimes scanned at POS)

These codes are to pass more detailed information and were not originally designed for use at Point of Service.  (Tickets and payment are different – they make some sense with 2D, but let’s set those aside for now).

Second, consider how 2D codes will be used.  Generally, I have seen 2 potential usages for 2D barcodes at a traditional point of service where the idea of scanning a 2D barcode has become interesting to a retailer.

tesco loyalty card mobile device ticketing john davies omniticket 2501. Loyalty Card – Increasingly retailers note that we don’t want to carry more cards in our wallets.  It’s free and simple to carry an app.  Why not provide a way for consumers to carry their loyalty card without a card?   This is a wonderful idea, but a 2D barcode is not necessary.  There are 1D barcodes that can easily pass the data required to the POS to identify the loyalty card holder.  No need for 2D here.

2. Coupons – The concerns around coupon fraud have driven retailers to consider using coupons with more security or one time offer numbers that are represented by 2D barcodes.   This is a valid option, but if coupons are now offered on mobile devices in this form, it can cause some problems.  What if the consumer has 6 coupons?  Does the attendant scan their phone, and then hand it back and then wait for them to scroll to the next coupon?   From a transactional perspective, this is awkward, time consuming, and prone to dropping a mobile device.  Instead, a better option is to move customers to a ‘coupon to card’ strategy that allows them to opt in to offers.  As soon as the customer purchases an item with an outstanding offer and their loyalty card identifies them, they automatically get the offer.  No coupon required.  Fraud potential is reduced.  Transaction is not impeded.  Not simple, but a better solution for many reasons.

There are many many other potential uses for 2D that are more useful and productive at a point of service like payment or tickets, but this discussion is focused on traditional POS usage.

So, with all of this in mind, what are the points of consideration around reading 2D barcodes?

  1. What are the codes being used for?  Ensure the usage fits the code.  There are more out there than you think.  Making sure it fits the use is key.
  2. What type of code is going to be used?  Only activate the ones you wish to use on the scanners.  Turning on others exposes the POS to potential failures as information unrecognized by the POS SW may be scanned – potentially causing a POS freeze at the front end.
  3. What is the transaction flow going to be like?  Avoid passing mobile phones to store staff if possible to avoid dropped devices.  Handheld or customer facing scanners are preferred to minimize these issues.
  4. How will the POS software interpret the string passed from the mobile device?  Does a cashier have to select a particular function BEFORE scanning the device? Make sure this is activated, as simple as possible and clear to the operator.
  5. What potential issues may arise from scanning a 2D barcode at POS?  Operational? Training?  It’s important to consider all aspects.

Here are some general recommendations based on experience with scanning from mobile devices and scanning 2D barcodes in a grocery environment:

If a retailer wants to read traditional 1D barcodes (not 2D barcodes) from the screen of a mobile device:

  1. For self-checkout lanes use an integrated imager in the scanner scale to allows customers to read 1D barcodes from mobile devices.
  2. For assisted service lanes use a handheld or customer facing stationary scanner-imager so that customers DO NOT have to pass their mobiles across the register to cashiers.
  • As mentioned, passing mobile devices could result in dropped and broken devices. It also interrupts the flow and pace of a transaction.

If a retailer wants to read 2D barcodes on either paper or mobile devices:

  1. For self-checkout do NOT enable 2D codes on Scanner-Scales if possible to simplify usage by consumers. Use 1D codes for coupons, offers, and loyalty cards if possible. For 2D codes provide a handheld wireless imager (either attached to self-checkout or from attendant) to read 2D codes if they are necessary. Ensure self-checkout, scanner and POS software are all programmed to read 2D codes correctly.
  2. For assisted service lanes do NOT enable 2D codes on Scanner-Scales.  If 2D barcodes are required, provide wireless handheld or stationary imager to read the 2D codes. Ensure self-checkout, scanner and POS software are all programmed to read 2D codes correctly.
  • Photo 2013-01-03 10 08 27 PMConsider that many suppliers have added 2D barcodes to their labels to allow consumers quick access to their facebook page or webpage.  If 2D barcode reading is enabled on scanner scales, the system does not know which barcode to read – the product 1D code or the 2D code (see image).  Scanner-imagers will pick up whatever is in front of them and customers and cashiers alike should not have to cover a 2D barcode to scan the traditional one to complete a transaction!
  • You could enable 2D barcodes on scanner-scales IF they are not QR codes used on product in the store.  For example, PDF417 are not usually used on product and those may be fine.

2D barcodes are potentially useful in the right environment.  Retailers are right to be ready to use them.  The bigger question is whether they are used for the right thing in the right context.  Retailers should be careful that they enhance the customer and store staff experience, and not make more work for all concerned!

2011.15 | Shop by Touch | Shop by Image

Shop by Touch –  Pokeware offers the opportunity for consumers to touch an item on screen shown in a film or TV show and then see details on that item including the opportunity to purchase it online.  This is a very powerful idea.  There are infinite directions for this sort of technology and it provides tremendous opportunities for buyers and sellers.  It is quite relevant in an inflight environment, but would also work very well in a larger format street sign or even on an iPad or iPod touch viewing any video at all.  We all see the obvious product placements, but how many times have you seen some interesting item you might wish to purchase – a bag, a shirt, anything – and then immediately forgot about it.  These represent millions of missed sales opportunities that should be seized at the moment of interest.  I think of this solution as the equivalent of Shazam.  For years you would hear a song on the radio, and miss the title, or hear the wrong title, and then be forced to hum like an idiot to a teenager at HMV.  Now if you hear a song you like, you just use Shazam and it tells you what that song is.  Shazam doesn’t chase you with an ad.  Shazam says – here you go – here’s the song, and oh, if you want to buy it, just grab it on iTunes, we’ll save you the click (and take a small finder’s fee).  This is the same situation, but it is visual, and it can used to buy real physical stuff – not just bits and bytes.

Consider this technology from another direction.  With direct purchases from the screen, we could potentially avoid commercials completely and use a more powerful type of product placement.  More and more, consumers expect to be able to touch screens and have at least some part of the experience – not be completely passive .   This is a simple and logical step to provide that ability with the prospect of removing commercials but keeping the revenue flowing to purveyors of entertainment.

Shopping by Image – In the same vein as shopping by touch, using the cameras on our mobile devices to shop seems increasingly achievable.  Consumers can shop with cameras as scanners, and even by taking pictures of books, cd’s and DVD’s and more with solutions like SnapTell.  But this represents only a start.  Google Goggles (it is part of the Google App on iOS – it can be easy to miss, just select the camera button to use it) allows consumers to search based on images.  While the technology is still relatively rudimentary today, it allows users to scan text, logos, landmarks and various other items and can identify them via search.  Google has also allegedly tested out using this technology with facial recognition to allow users to identify people with mobile phone cameras so that you never have wonder who that guy is at the wedding.  While Google will probably not bring that product out any time soon for very real privacy concerns, these technologies represent the foundation for being able to recognize an outfit, a house, a car, a watch, or anything you like in whatever context you want, and then allow a link where you can buy it.  Both SnapTell and Goggles point in that direction.

This may sound far fetched, but imaging in the real world has come a long way.  Since 2003, police in the Toronto area have been using license plate recognition imaging technology to read thousands of plates on cars to search for those from stolen cars, identify wanted individuals and other useful tasks.  If imaging systems can handle tasks like this, it seems a reasonable step to take us to shopping with our cameras, but only time will tell.  Telling the difference between an old school Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket, and this stylish young gentleman’s shirt might just be harder than reading license plates.

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