2012.08 | Interactive Screens – not Kiosks

Interactive kiosk solutions have been a part of retail for as long as someone was able to stick a computer in a box.  While mobile is definitely a phenomenon in retail, we are far from saturation on kiosks as self service solutions.   In fact, there has never been a better time to consider a self service kiosk solution – and those solutions don’t have to be limited to a little square screen on a stick.

The technology options available to power these solutions has improved tremendously and there are an increasingly wide range of form factors, as well as peripherals of all sorts to serve pretty much any market or need imaginable.    In fact, I would suggest that the use of the term kiosk is outdated.  It refers to that little square screen on a stick or in a box from a decade ago.

The days of a cobwebbed kiosk in the corner are gone, and new technology means a new generation of interaction in sites.  Consider technology and societal changes that make these new interactions possible:

Larger format screens – 50 and 60″ LCD devices are now available for the cost of a regular old 15″ solution from a number of  years ago.     This reduced cost makes it more affordable to implement a kiosk that has some visual appeal, lots of space for visual elements, and more easily blends into the customer experience in the store than the technology of years gone by. Projection options are also finding their way into the mainstream – meaning a whole new opportunity for engagement and new placements of interactive experiences.

Increased Use of Touch –  – increased availability of touch interfaces means more people are comfortable with them.  If you think back just a few years, there was far less use of touch interfaces.  The release of iDevices, touch on Blackberries and various tablets and eReaders means that a comfort level has grown that was not there before.  This increases the willingness and comfort of the average consumer to interface with a touch system.

Pervasive Technology – There is now a generation of young adults who have never lived without mobile phones or the internet.  Where for many years one saw customers saying they “don’t want to use that thing” or “I want to talk to a person”, there is a whole new generation of shoppers are hungry for different touchpoints and shopping experiences.

What works with interactive kiosk experiences?

With the technology to enable incredible interactive experiences in any place where stores can exist, it is important to consider what experience is being provided.  I have seen a number of interactive experiences requested over the years, and there are a few learnings I can pass on.

1.  Buy-in – If an interactive experience in a retail setting is going to work, then all stakeholders have to be invested in it. If executives, store management or store staff don’t believe in the solution then it will fail.    Any half-hearted solution will not work.  It is like any other group initiative.  Without the conscious involvement, understanding and enthusiasm from the team, whatever solution you have will not work.  It will be doomed from the start.

2. Functionality – The solution has to have a benefit to all who use it.  A benefit for the user, the store staff and the business in general.  For the customer it could be helping them avoid a line, or get help without having to ask a staff member.  For the store staff, it could help them with capacity. For the business, it can keep customers in the store instead of leaving, it could upsell them, it could give them an experience that will keep them as a long term customer.

As an additional detail, my experience has been that transactional systems tend to get more use than informational ones.  Where some customers may be interested in reading product information in great details, there is greater usage and more direct measurable benefit to the business when someone wants to buy something and can do so directly on the solution.

If customers can look at product information, that’s great, but if they can buy the product and have it sent to their home, they don’t need to consider a second interaction.  They can do it on the spot.   Bottom line in my opinion – no ROI – no interactive solution.  If it isn’t driving business, it’s taking up space.  Don’t implement technology for its own sake.

As a personal aside please don’t waste time with the following:

  • e-flyers – I’d like someone to show me how this pays off.  Why would I scroll through an e-flyer at a screen in a store?  I will do it at home, but that is a different user experience.  It is always faster to scan through a paper one in a store, users have no audience waiting to use the unit, and often the paper flyers are sitting in a giant pile right next to the screen.
  • games – I’ve never understood why I would want to play a game on a screen in a store or how that would benefit a retailer. I’m also annoying others who may want to use the screen to find a product.  Exception – if it’s a contest where I get a discount and it’s quick.
  • in store wayfinding – Nobody trusts these in stores anymore.  In a small store there is no need for them.  In a large store who keeps this updated?  Stores change around so much, and I doubt that planograms are updated and automatically interfaced.  It can also take longer to scroll through than just walk through the store.  Exception 1 – if there is an automated interface to constantly updated planogram system. Exception 2 – if there is a version that works with your mobile device Meijer Findit – maybe.  Just put stuff where we can find it.

Based on what I’ve seen, these items are add-ons designed to flesh out a solution, but it never feels useful or natural to me, and drives out more value more than it adds.

3.  User Experience – If the customer doesn’t at least find the experience useful, they won’t use the screen again.  I’m not a UI designer myself, but self service best practices should be followed that suit the application, and having an experienced consultant design your interface is well worth the investment.

Examples of best practices include using as few screens as possible to get a user to completion of their task, using buttons and text that are easy to see and read, and minimize and simplify data entry unless absolutely necessary – especially duplicate requests.  Providing a simple and convenient experience will draw them in and bring them back.

4.  Ongoing Support – If the solution isn’t working, it’s not getting used.  If it’s not getting used, the benefits above are not being realized.  If people see it not getting used, it will be used even less until it is completely ignored, negating the initial intention of having the solution at all.  Ongoing support means making sure the hardware is working to it’s full potential.  No failed peripherals, or a paper sign tacked on it saying out of order.  That can’t happen.

Just as importantly, content must be accurate and updated where relevant.  If a kiosk never changes, unless it fulfills a very specific and key function it will die.  Retailers would never consider leaving their stores the same through seasons – they are always updated with fresh ideas, programs and products.  Interactive solutions must be part of any store updates – the graphics, the videos, the interactions must all keep pace.  People are always engaged with new content – we all know this.  Make sure the solutions are constantly updated to pull people in.

This is a key element that gets missed.  Project teams move to the next new thing, funding is pulled to other new projects, and solutions die.  Don’t let that happen.

5.  One Brand Experience – Retailers understand that providing a seamless single experience to retailers across all parts of the business makes it easier for consumers to buy, which means more sales.  Now that barriers are being removed web stores and brick and mortar stores, allowing returns across the banner, for example, customers are expecting this barrier removal to continue across all interface points.  As each channel becomes easier to use, customers are likely to try out the new ones.  If a customer considers an interactive screen in a shopping centre to be a window into their brand experience, they are increasingly likely to use it.  It’s no longer a separate thing – using this interactive solution should be part a consistent brand  experience.  Try as much as possible to make that experience consistent and targeted to those consumers as much as possible.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are key elements to making a solution really and truly work for the customers and the retailer.

Where is this going?

There is no way to know where the future takes us, but here are a few of my thoughts on the future of interactive screens – hitherto known as kiosks:

Every screen is interactive – and it should be.  Currently there is lots of digital signage out there, but the communication is only one way.  It is showing you messages and is not open for input.  The millennial cohort and younger generations are growing up with interactive screens.  Not having input doesn’t make sense to them.  Expect walls of digital posters in stores to be enabled for interactivity in the future.  During the slow hours of the day, they show brand and product messaging.  At busy times, they can be used to engage customers on selecting their best mobile plan, finding out their balance, or contacting a service rep.

Every interaction is personal – and it should be.  Future interactions should be filtered to get to the point for specific clients.  Allowing customers to identify themselves via loyalty cards or some other simple format means that the messaging and interactions can be customized.  This can minimize screens and touches and provide a streamlined experience.  It could mean language, recognizing services or products the customer has purchased or identified to provide assistance or upsell on them, offers specific to that customer, or even providing access to profiles so that customers can validate how they want to be dealt with.

Screens can be anywhere on any surface in any place.  Large screens are pervasive, but expect projection and other technologies to start to show up as cost drops and brightness increases.  They can cover large or irregular areas, they can provide big screen surface with a small device, and they provide flexible solution options. Starbucks had a good example of this in Toronto and Vancouver last year.

Screens will interact with each other.  Everyone knows we have screens in our pocket, but some content works better in a larger format.  It is technically possible to leverage both together in a store environment in myriad different ways.  Why not have a pre-ordering menu on a mobile device to stage an order that is passed to an in store device to order?  Why not provide a message that an order is ready to a mobile device while customers wait in the store?  Why not enable selection of items for purchase of out of stock items instore from the website, and then complete the payment transaction on the small mobile screen for privacy and security?  As the general public matures technically and they see benefits, these interactions will catch on.

Once again, I think the time has passed to call these interactive kiosks.  Mobile is huge for reatil. Tablets are huge for retail as well, and some think these persona devices signal the end of kiosks, but interactive screens in stores, shopping centres, or wherever you wish already are and will continue to play a tremendous role in the retail ecosystem.

2012.07 | Mobile Payments in Canada

A few options for mobile payments that have come to my attention as of late:

Verifone PaywareVerifone will soon be releasing a pinpad solution for iPhones in Canada that allows for EMV (also known as chip and pin) enabled payment acceptance.  A peripheral attached to the iPhone allows for the card to be inserted and a pin entered on the back of the peripheral.  This effectively provides a completely portable wireless (via wifi or cellular data) payment unit to business owners in Canada.  While not necessarily a device that larger retailers will want to use initially, it certainly lays the groundwork for change to the current industry model where countertop devices are connected via internet or a phone line and enables a whole range of small business owners to take payments wherever they do business with a device they already have on hand.

It’s the right move by Verifone – effectively giving the masses what they want.  I have had the question from numerous non-traditional small business owners of how they can accept electronic payments, and this is one potential answer.

I think it’s a great idea, but see challenges for retailers who already have issues with security.  There is also the challenge of charging – hopefully these devices have a USB pass-through charging cable that avoids the challenge of a small retailer forgetting to charge their iPhone.  No matter the challenges, this is a solution that needs to be there.   The use cases and issues will be worked out over time.

Interac e-Transfer – While most Canadians aren’t aware of it, Interac has been providing financial institutions the opportunity to enable Interac e-Transfer – effectively a slightly updated debit transaction – for some time.  It allows for individuals to transfer funds to other individuals without knowing their bank account information – the key barrier for most people transferring funds from person to person.  I’ve used this solution a few times via my bank both on my PC and on my mobile.

Users establish a payee on a list and set up a personal question that they have to answer.  An email or text message with a link is sent to the payee.  The payees then follow the link to enter their banking information and complete the transfer.  While this is a fully functional and usable system, it is not terribly convenient using my present service provider.  Payees for my bank have to be established on a PC and not on the mobile device – though once they are established, they can be selected form a list.  If it is not possible to establish a user on a mobile, few people will go for it.  Why not allow users to pick from the address book?  Probably fear of security holes.  Looks the Barclays in the UK is trying the same with Pingit, and I’m sure there are other offerings I have not heard about.

Google Wallet – Google Wallet continues to stumble along.  You can only get it in the US on a Nexus S through a single carrier, and now there are concerns two different hacking issues.  Yikes.  Wonder why it might be delayed in Canada?  Here’s hoping it gets flushed out, though I continue to wonder if NFC may not be doomed from a business perspective.  It’s fine technology, but there are always too many players who want their slice of the pie, or want to keep others out when payments come into the picture.

The End of Money – On the subject of electronic payments, I recently listened to a podcast with David Wolman, author of the newly released book “The End of Money“.  As a proponent of  a cashless society, I was intrigued by his discussion of the hidden costs of currency – costs of which I’m very much aware – and have picked up the book.  I’m looking forward to reading it, and you may want to pick up a copy as well.

2012.03 | NRF – AR – Payments & more

Stories of note from January:

NRF Big Show 2012 – As mentioned, I was at the NRF show this week.  Check out this video covering the underlying themes seen on the floor:  mobile,  consumer experience, convergence of channels, and inventory visibility.

Dominos Augmented Reality  – Dominos is using Augmented Reality to sell pizza in the UK.  Using the blippar app, users point their mobile’s camera at a billboard to see an overlay on their screen that they can touch for offers and ordering.

Microsoft Electronic Mirror – At CES this year, Microsoft was showing their version of a technology enhanced mirror concept.  I’ve seen a few of these so far, and perhaps they are a bit ahead of their time.  The Microsoft Kinect sure has some interesting possibilities for retail – particularly given it now has an official SDK – and eventually someone will work out a use case it in a retail setting that will add value to the customer experience.

Publix Cancels Curbside Pickup – US grocer Publix piloted a program for a year where customers can order groceries online and then have them brought to the car upon arrival to the store.   The program has been cancelled.  It’s an interesting idea, but I expect it is much simpler logistically to have customers come into the store to pick up their order or to have orders delivered to their home directly.

Intuit launching iPhone Payments in Canada – Staying ahead of Square, Intuit is expected to launch their GoPayment solution in Canada in the near future.  I’ve had requests from friends and clients about an equivalent to Square in Canada, so expect they will have some takers.  I will be most interested to see how they deal with EMV.  Both the Intuit and Square solution include card swiping modules that connect to the iPhone or iPad.  Those devices work fine with decades old MSR technology, but what about EMV and the requirement for reading chips from cards, and allowing entry of PINs- a requirement in Canada?

2011.46 | Wired App Guide: Retail Edition

I finally read the Wired App Guide this weekend.  I highly recommend picking it up if you are interested in mobile apps.  It covers many platforms, and appears to try to stay neutral – iPhone, iPad, Android, WP7 are all represented, but it is iOS heavy. Sorry Blackberry lovers – no mention of Blackberry, though I know at least some of the apps are offered on the Blackberry Market from personal experience.

No matter how much you stay up to date with apps, the app guide is a good read, and there are definitely some useful apps in there, no matter what your personal interests.

Of the 400 apps included, only a  few are retail oriented; 15 by my count.  In fairness, defining retail can be daunting, so I’ve had to use my own reckoning (I’ve counted Netflix and rdio for example – they sell movies and music) and very few are from household “retail” brand names – Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks are the only ones.

Here are the most interesting mobile apps of interest to retailers that made the cut into the app guide:

Kindle – I love Amazon, but Kindle is obviously saving their best efforts for their own devices.  The picture in the app guide is from a Kindle Fire, which is miles ahead of what you get on other devices.  While Apple Amazon and other booksellers  by mandating a cut of in-app sales, the Kindle eBook store accessible via iPad is really an unfortunate user experience.  Kobo’s web store is much easier to navigate and use.  I also think Kobo is doing a much better job in Canada as of late.  Their prices are more reasonable, and the ereader program is comparable to Kindle.

Amazon Mobile – Take the mobile app, scan barcode at store, and get the price for an item from Amazon and add to your cart.  Helpful. Not unique to this app.  Tesco has an app that does the same thing, and Canadian Tire can provide pricing from local store with a barcode scan.  There are many more with notable capabilities – like Meijer’s Findit.

Starbucks – They had to be on there as the pioneer in building a mobile payment system.  The Canadian version is causing me and Canadian users headaches as it seems to be forgetting the login and password.  Forces users to *gasp* pull out their plastic card.  Great app otherwise, and I’m sure that will be fixed.

Apple Store -I’m less keen on the buying capability in the app, but the addition of in store pickup is very handy.  Being able to look up what Apple considers a good aftermarket product also is a useful touch.  More helpful is the ability to book a meeting with a Genius at your local store.  It should be this easy to book appointments with anyone.

Barcode Scanner – It’s an android app.  Not sure why they pushed this barcode scanning price comparison engine.  There have been many others available for years.

Seamless Food Delivery – Network of restaurants to order delivery from your phone.  Great concept.  Not available in Canada, but there are Canadian equivalents for online delivery – no mobile app, but should work on the browser of your mobile.

OpenTable – Reserve tables at your favourite restaurant.  My favourite new features is that you can now save your reservation to your calendar.  A must for obsessive-compulsive types.

Rdio Canada – While it appears to have been around a while, Rdio Canada allows users to play and listen to music in the Netflix model – but with way more content.  Mobile apps are available and it works with airplay.  I’m currently trying it out on a 7 day free trial.  $14.99 per month for unlimited. Great idea for those who don’t have a large music collection already.  Tough break if you are trying to still sell CDs.

Zinio – I don’t buy paper magazines anymore, and this app is the reason.  While there are a few magazines with native iPad apps, many don’t have them.  You can get many of the others here for prices as low as $10 per year.  Immediate downloads on availability.  Very useable reader. Can carry all my magazines with me when I travel.

It’s not terribly surprising that only a few retail brands made this list.  There are thousands of apps, and a top 400 list by necessity will have a lot of things unrelated to a retail experience.  The success of a retail mobile app is not necessarily indicated by being on this list either.

Like any other solution, it’s important to have a benefit to the user and the retailer.  Find a unique need for your clients, and fulfill it.  Many times fulfilling that need will streamline a cost for you.  Do you think it’s more expensive in the long run for Apple Stores to have a web based appointment system interfaced to their mobile app for simple scheduling of technical assistance, or for them just to let people pile into stores at random and get angry when they have to wait for hours to get assistance?

This technology provides a real opportunity to make lives better.  Take the opportunity to help your customers.

2011.35 | MasterCard Mobile Paypass: Not Mobile Payment

BMO Mastercard announced yesterday that they are offering the BMO Mastercard Mobile Paypass –  a mobile payment solution using NFC and specifically the Mastercard Paypass solution.

I find it perplexing, though not particularly surprising that Mobile Paypass  is receiving a relatively loud fanfare in the press here in Canada – 27 articles as of the writing of this post on Sep 13.  The headline “First Big Bank to Launch Mobile Payment” is somewhat misleading.   The solution that BMO are offering is not remotely new, and it is not what I would consider a true mobile payment solution.

This solution is a sticker with an NFC tag that can be used to pay at NFC payment terminals at the POS in the same way that MasterCard Paypass Cards are currently used.  Customers tap the Paypass Tag on the back of the mobile device on the payment terminal and the card details are passed to the terminal for payment.

The MasterCard Mobile Paypass can adhere to the back of a mobile device, but it can be just as easily stuck to your iPod, your leather wallet or your keychain if you so wish.  Effectively one can also do the same thing today with a BMO MasterCard plastic card.  It fits in the cover on the back of an iPhone, and nothing stops anyone from doing that and leveraging a ‘mobile payment solution’.

If MasterCard Mobile Paypass is considered a mobile payment solution, Esso Canada SpeedPass and Shell Canada’s EasyPay should be as well.  These solutions are wireless key fobs connected to an account with a credit card number that effectively do the same thing, and have been on the market and available for consumers for many years. While not ‘offered’ by a big bank and only usable at a specific retailer, they have certainly been in the mainstream for many years.

All of the hype around mobile payments should be around a true mobile wallet versus using a sticker or a key chain to make credit card payments instead of a physical credit card.  While these are wonderful stepping stones that I use and will continue to use, the exciting part is getting to that true mobile wallet.

The following are my criteria for a true mobile payment solution:

1. Integrated Communication to Payment Terminal – The NFC or whatever communication technology that communicates with the mobile payment device is physically ‘built in’ to the mobile device.   As far as I am concerned, a true mobile wallet is not physically separate from the mobile device.  That module could be part of a SIM card perhaps, but it should be integrated to the phone electronically in some way.  NFC is preferred, as it does not require cellular or wi-fi data accessibility for payments to be processed.

2. Mobile Wallet Application Software on the Mobile Device – A mobile wallet requires a mobile application that can leverage the NFC or other communication technology as though it were a peripheral.  It should be possible to see multiple cards from various banks and card issuers and their details at the very least.  A more sophisticated version should also include loyalty cards, gift cards, transaction details, coupons and offers, tickets and even receipts for all purchases made with the card.  While the solution could be browser based, it should have an offline function at the very least for times of no data connectivity.

3. Ability to pay with Multiple Cards – The wallet should support multiple payment cards that can be chosen on the screen with the same NFC interface to the payment terminal.  Could be any credit card (Visa, Mastercard, Amex, etc) or any debit cards from any bank. Should also be able to work with retailer offered gift cards.

4. Card Additions, Removals and Changes – The wallet should have the capability to have cards added or removed in the wallet by the user or bank or card issuer.  The cards would use the same NFC interface on the mobile device to connect to the payment device.  The wallet should have a the capability to be ‘deactivated’ remotely by the user or card issuer.

5. User to User Funds Transfers – Ideally, it would be possible to pass funds from one user to another by tapping the phones together, based on the account of choice by the user.  This could be a release 2.0 feature.

This sort of solution is very different from attaching a tag to a mobile device and calling it mobile payment.  The keys to getting a solution of this kind in place have been covered many times in this blog, but the fundamentals in Canada are a widely available and popular NFC enabled mobile device, and an application backed by a company large enough and trustworthy enough that consumers will be comfortable enough to put their credit card numbers in their hands.  Both are challenges.  I won’t even mention encryption, security, EMV, or PCI.  That it must work within those parameters is a given.

Google Wallet is closer to this reality than anyone else, though there are always rumours of Apple, RIM and Paypal as well.  When the mobile wallet I describe above is offered, we will have arrived.  Until that point, beware the inflammatory mobile payment headline.

Update 9/15/11 – I understand from another article that e-mail receipts are also available with this option.  That is a slight change, but considering it is mainly for purchases under $50, the value of receipts for double-double at Tim’s.  Still, it is a step forward to e-receipts and less paper that I am definitely in line with.

Another consideration is that if a purchase does happen to be over $50, I’m not sure what the process will be.  With my current BMO Paypass card, there is a chip on it, so I insert the card into the pinpad and enter my PIN for more than $50.  I don’t think there can be a chip on this card, so we might be back to signatures.  I expect that they will have to put a signature space on the card so clerks can check it.  Now one has to pass the clerk the mobile device so that they can check the signature (don’t like that), and get a paper receipt which negates the benefit.  I don’t think retailers will love gathering receipt slips again now that EMV is in place.  It’s a good stepping stone, and I’ll be very interested to see how it works out!  I’ll get one if I can.

2011.31 | Shopping from your Car

The rebirth of the American auto business is thanks in part to the efforts of the car companies to integrate two great consumer loves – automobiles and mobile phones. It started out with Bluetooth integration to allow hands free calling, but given the increasing power of smartphones and their usability, auto makers are taking it up a level to provide remote control capability, audio integration and more.

I saw a wonderful demonstration of the potential of these solutions in the demonstration centre at my own place of business some time ago. At the time it seemed a bit fanciful to me, but over time, I’m starting to see the real potential of the idea.

At present the integration of mobile phones and automobiles is mostly linked to telephone calls and audio integration.  Some solutions are going a bit further as mentioned above, but there aren’t any shopping solutions that I have seen yet.

If we take that technology a few steps further you can imagine the incredible change that is coming our way.

Consider a drive home from work a few years hence:

You get in the car, and begin to drive home.  Your phone rings and it is your spouse.  They indicate that you are short on milk and bread, and that you had promised to pick up a jar of olives that day.  This sort of conversation is routine on a car ride home in today’s world.

The part that will change is that after you hang up the phone, you will then be able to ask your mobile via audio command to check the stores on your route home for three items: bread, milk, and olives.  Your mobile device can take the command given and can identify the stores in order of preference, price, or location.  You can speak the name of the store you would like to buy from, and the purchase will be made instantaneously over the phone.  You stop at the store and pick up the items purchased at a special counter – or even better – you pull up and someone puts them in the trunk of your car.  The receipt is already in your receipts folder in your email.

While it sounds like a bit of a dream, all of the solution components exist to do this today:

Smartphone with Automobile Integration–  The power of any of the smartphone mobile devices available today is well within the realm of reality required for completing these sorts of solutions.  Many new cars have bluetooth integration and that technology should expand and improve.

Audio Input to MobileGoogle has been doing this for some time.  It is getting more accurate, as well.  I use Dragon Dictation and have tested it in loud environments and it works well.  Apple is also rumoured to be building this into next iOS – expect others to do so.  Expect people to abuse it in public to everyone’s embarrassment, as well.

GPS Search along route – It is already possible to identify locations along a route using Google Maps.  While stores need to be identified in some way, sites tags could be used.

Inventory Search – There are already UK based services to price compare specific grocery lists.  While more rare in Canada for grocery, there are some that provide inventory searches in general merchandise already – Chapters Indigo and The Source already provide it.  If there is an API to get the information, it could be brought together for this solution.

Online Purchase – There are many services to purchase online already like Paypal, or a retailer can leverage an existing web store.

Paying without Entering a Credit Card – The purchase could be completed via a one click purchase by keeping a credit card number on file as  is already done by iTunes and Amazon.  The solution would have to be adjusted to a verbal equivalent, but this could be done using a solution like Amazon’s PayPhrase.

While this sort of solution would not be without its complexities, it is certainly within the adjacent possible.  Like the Tesco Korean Subway grocery shopping solution, or like the Starbucks Mobile Payment solution, it is a matter of assembling a number of components that already exist today and cleverly packaging them.   Being the first one to a solution like this could provide a terrific competitive advantage.

The greater challenge for retailers is integrating a monster like this into their operations infrastructure.  To make something like this really take off, execution would need to be flawless.  If the inventory is missing, or the store staff don’t provide a pickup, or the payment process isn’t simple, customers will not use the solution and it will be a wasted idea.

While this is a challenging area – it seems like a true possibility.  Retailers are already struggling with the many channels for sales – web, mobile, store, self service kiosk and more, it will only get more complex over time as these channels snowflake into various subsections – like mobile ordering via an automobile.

Beyond the complexities of all of the items above, there are two things for retailers to consider before being able to leverage a solution like this:

1.  A service oriented architecture of some sort needs to be in place to deal with ongoing requests for new channels. If every solution is custom, this will never happen.

2.  In order to accommodate customers via all of these channels and to understand what channels customers are using and what they want, it will be come increasingly important to implement a back end solution that allows retailers a view of customers across all of these channels as well as a vehicle to interface with them across all of them in the simplest most transparent way possible.  Without this infrastructure, the business will become increasingly fragmented and impossible to operate efficiently.

A solution like this would have been mere fantasy even 3 or 4 years ago.  It is exciting to see the possibilities for consumer convenience, and the potential for retailer differentiation.  Hopefully we will see implementations of this type in the near future.

2011.29 | Mobile Retail Apps

In order to get the attention of today’s consumer, retailers need to provide the best possible experience from any channel where customers wish to interface with them.  Michael’s – home to the crafty types – has put together their own mobile app with a spin towards functionality that they feel that their following would enjoy – things like video examples and mobile versions of datasheets, as well as the usual coupons and offers.  Sounds terrific.

Here are a few thoughts about following in their footsteps with an iPhone app:

1.  Ensure your target market are iPhone users.  I’m sure Michael’s checked that and decided that the development was worthwhile.  Mobile apps are inexpensive compared to many enterprise level retail software development efforts, so it probably wasn’t a difficult decision.  Because Michael’s already had a library of web based resources anyway, the only addition was probably the iPhone interface.

Fundamentally, with web services in place they can all be leveraged to build an app for another platform.  More practically, I recommend a mobile web based interface for the retailer’s website that will work on any platform.  There are platforms that will automatically re-format the screens to fit any size device – Blackberry, iPhone, Android, Windows and more – based on the browser and screen resolution of the device accessing the page.  This is more a function of practicality than design.  Why provide functionality to users on one platform, when for a similar cost, you could provide it to all smartphone users?

Examples of mobile web instead of apps click on theses links with your mobile: LLBean and Sears. For lots of examples of apps, check out my page on Canadian retailers with links to social media and apps.  A recent article indicates that retailers are starting to follow this web format instead of iPhone apps.

2.  Make sure the mobile app has functions that are practical and add to the customer experience you want to provide.  Just because an advertising company will throw in an app for free as part of a contract, or your head of marketing wants to have an app to see your logo in the apple store doesn’t necessarily make it worthwhile to the consumer.  In fact, if the app doesn’t add anything new to the arrangement, the consumer may feel you have been wasting their time.    A standard store finder isn’t enough – I can just do that on the maps application.  However, one that shows via a coloured icon that the store is currently open, as is used on Starbucks Canada or McDonalds Canada, is a pretty good idea.  The Home Depot Canada app has a function to measure screws and various other items.  All of these are examples of trying to do something different that is helpful, and can enhance the customer experience for their specific clientele.  I can’t tell you the idea that will make your app or web based store, but your customers might!  Ask them.

3.  Ensure the app can identify the user in a way that the customer can opt in or opt out.  Most retailers have a loyalty program in place.  What better way to identify the customers than leveraging this same infrastructure?  Be certain that opting in works flawlessly and simply and that nobody is forced to identify themselves.  In fact, if there is an additional benefit to the customer to identifying themselves on the app, all the better.  If there is extra functionality for loyalty users, they are more likely to identify themselves and be happy about it.

Why identify customers?  There are benefits to customers and retailer alike.  First, if the customer is identified, it is possible to provide a unique experience for that customer.  Whether it is default languages or remembering shopping lists, having that identification allows the retailer to provide additional benefits to the consumer, and they in turn may have the opportunity to opt in to the experience that they wish to have across mobile, POS and web interfaces.  A customized experience can drive loyalty, which drives bigger baskets and more sales.

Secondly, having the identification in place allows retailers the ability to identify what channels and functionality are used and by whom.  Considering the myriad opportunities for IT investment, knowing who is using what in what way provides a validation of customer usage against customer sales.  If only 200 customers are using your iPhone app, that may seem like a bad investment, but if 90% of them are in your top segment for sales, that may not be the case.  Just looking at downloads of an app is not good enough anymore.  This also turns around for the customers.  Seeing what customers are using ensures that the best channels and functionality are available to them for their retailer.

2011.20 | Square = Payments + Filing Cabinet?

Making payments via a mobile phone is not technically difficult.  What is difficult is making those payments as simple and ubiquitous as swiping a payment card at a point of sale.  

I reviewed all of the points needed to make a mobile wallet work 2 years ago, and we’re still waiting for the breakthrough.  (If we finally get NFC on iPhone 4S in September or on a new Blackberry – we may finally get a version of mobile wallet breakthrough courtesy of Apple trying to get a stranglehold on payments leveraging iTunes.)

Solutions like Square are really pushing the envelope, and that is great for the payments and technology industries.  It’s easy to get caught up in every day work and become comfortable and to say some things are just not possible.   

Sometimes it takes a new entrant who actually tries to do something obvious but so monolithic nobody wanted to tackle it to move a solution along.  While Square was originally envisioned as a personal or small business payment system, their latest attempts at installations in a couple of stores in New York City point to them attempting to move this sort of mobile payment system up the food chain to bonafide small businesses.

What is really interesting about the Square solution is not just the payment side, which has been languishing for many years now and will not be solved without bridging the points I made 2 years ago, but another attempt at leveraging e-receipts on the solution.  I have long been a proponent for at least shortening, and ideally eliminating paper receipts.  I pick up dozens of receipts in a week – just buying coffee or a juice, picking up a greeting card; you name it.   Let’s not mention big ticket purchases or the arm length tapes from grocery stores.  I scan significant receipts onto my PC or Evernote for filing and immediately recycle.  Who can keep track of all of the receipts, and is it worth it?  What Square attempts to do is leverage the integration of payment and mobile to keep a wallet full of those receipts on the customer’s mobile device, skipping the scan and file step.  The solution provides a benefit to both customer and retailer.  The customer gets a record of all of their purchases, and the retailer effectively gets a built in loyalty tracking system.  But when you think about it, what’s the benefit of knowing how many coffees or bagels you purchased to a client?  It’s not incredibly helpful.  Keeping the receipts for the last 10 visits to the local superstore where I bought a pair of pants that don’t fit my daughter that I need to return- that is much more helpful. 

So how do you get a receipt repository that would scale?  There are certainly a number of e-receipt solutions out there.  The problem is around getting some level of scale and a common platform people will use and trust. 

My contention is that the organizations best positioned to do such a thing would be the credit card companies.  The credit card companies are well known, and trusted with financial data.   The data for the transaction total is already passed to them and their servers.  It would be challenging, but much less difficult to add a transaction number or details to the data string sent back to the credit card company via the payment terminals.  While not all clients would use such a service, even a percentage of customer using e-receipts should drive significant cost savings in paper usage and returns fraud.  Given all of the negative press around credit card processors, expanding their business in a new direction to drive revenue from either retailers or consumers for a useful service.

Moving to a receipt free society is a significant challenge, but at least some organizations are trying.  The cash registers (ECR’s in fact) are not gone from the stores where Square is being tested and the first attempts at using were not very smooth – after all it’s a new technology and we should hesitate to trust cellular coverage so deeply to complete a transaction at present.  The wallet as receipt holder is still not there yet, and there are many, many operational hurdles that I haven’t even mentioned, but it continues to become more and more realistic to imagine.

2011.18 | Sizing Booth, Mobile Payment, Social Media Vending

mybestfit – A mall near you may soon be featuring a booth that allows you to quickly know your size of choice at all of the stores in the mall.  The booths offered by mybestfit and currently installed in a Pennsylvania mall look very similar to full body scanning solutions see at the airport, but instead of scanning for dangerous items provide a very detailed sizing profile for users.  Given the ongoing vanity sizing taking place in fashion, this could be a very useful service.   While it doesn’t solve the problem of varying sizes at stores, it could take some of the guesswork out of picking the right size clothing to take to the dressing room.  Whether these booths use the same technology or not, the footprint is essentially identical.  This means that the biggest obstacle for this solution is removing consumer perception that ‘nude’ images of them will surface on the internet somewhere.  While they highlight that users stay clothed for sizing, I see no validation that privacy is assured and that no images are seen or kept.  This solution needs to be sold carefully to consumers and locked down hard against technically proficient attendants with, shall we say, a potentially loose sense of privacy and online behaviour.  I’m not suggesting that these points would be front and centre of their marketing plan, but there should be an FAQ somewhere.  I’m not shy, and I trust the airport security who protect us to a reasonable degree to keep images to themselves as a semi-official professional organization, but I don’t trust some person at the mall I’ve never met, and nobody else should either.  Privacy issues aside, if it works as advertised, it’s a very impressive and practical solution, and it would be great to see it in the local mall.

Mobile Payment – Much hyped Square had come under some fire from the payments industry for security holes, but is looking to move towards industry standards with some investment from Visa.   Also, for those of us with those EMV woes that may want to pay or be paid through these iPhone interfaces, iZettle out of Sweden apparently have an EMV flavour of card reading device.  As always, the mobile wallet brings controversy, multiple players, and no simple answer any time soon.

Social Media Vending MachinePepsi recently announced social media capability in a new breed of vending machines.  Users can purchase a Pepsi for a friend at a machine, and the friend can pick up their beverage at another social media enabled vending machine.  Users can send the beverage with a personalized text message or some macines will even have video message capability.   Check the video for more details.  It’s fascinating how vending and self-service are increasingly converging.  The improvements in technology seem to allow the only limit to the solution be the imagination of the responsible party.  That and a solid budget.  As these systems become increasingly complex, the support infrastructure behind it will need to become more robust than the person in the delivery truck unlocking the unit and emptying the coins.  The thought behind supporting solutions like these for the long term is as important as the idea itself, as this solution support – the infrastructure for the video, the supply chain for the merchandise, the ability to monitor the uptime of the system, and the ongoing care and feeding in general – will be what makes these solutions a success or a giant boat anchor.  A boat anchor with a large, blank flat LCD on the front of it.

2011.16 | M-commerce Redux

The influence of mobile technology continues to make itself felt in retail this month:

Home Depot Canada iPhone App Update – There are many retail apps, and more and more of them are attempting to provide value and functionality that you can’t already get with the standard mobile phone apps.  Finding store locations is certainly useful, but not something that will cause users to open an app again and again.  The way McDonalds Canada’s app indicates 24 hour sites with different icons on the map, and Starbucks shows whether stores are open or closed at the moment you are searching does add some value for those of us trolling for late night (or early morning) snacks.  An interesting update to the Home Depot Canada app adds some value in a different way.  The updated app provides a number of tools that are unique to a DIY environment, and more importantly, are actually useful.  Among a number of mini apps within the app, the new toolbox has an app that provides for a quick match for nuts and bolts based on aligning a sample on the screen, a great conversion tool, and a tape measure that allows users to estimate a distance by entering in their shoe size and pacing out a distance.  Users can even save their measurements with whatever titles they want.  This is an excellent example of providing a small but memorable and valuable service on an app that meets the needs of a specific target market.

Selfcheckout on Mobile at Stop & Shop – Further to their iPhone and Android apps, Stop & Shop announced last week that they releasing an app that allows users in stores to scan their own items for checkout.  I would enjoy using this app just for price verification – there is so often a shortage of signage and a long walk to a price verifier that would make this a helpful application for me.  As far as using the solution to checkout, this turns into a real operational scenario.  I’d be fine using it if Stop & Shop trusts me enough to just scan my items, pay and walk out.  Unfortunately, security usually requires periodic audits – which could slow this process down for some users.  Also note that all of the operational issues I pointed out in an earlier post in 2009 about self-scanning still apply, but with some mobile considerations added in.  It’s great technology, and getting better all the time.  If it is to have wide success however, these serious operational changes need to be accommodated to ensure that the solution will work as it should for consumers, and any shrink issues are fully understood and dealt with. 

Mobile Purchasing – With over 70% mobile penetration in Canada and over 90% in the US (see page 190 of the report), it’s no wonder that these apps continue to roll out, and that retailers target sales directly on the devices.  I’m an early adopter, so I’ve purchased tickets, rented and purchased movies, bought music and maybe a book or two.  I can see purchasing a lot more on mobile if it was easy enough to do so.  I’m seeing more and more retail sites optimized for use with mobile devices that automatically move to a mobile version when you access them on your phone, and that could move more purchases to the device.   It would also be nice to have a simple interface to some of the half day sales the likes of the Gap put on.  Consumers might be more likely to take advantage of a short term deal if it was only a few screen touches.  Expect retailers to improve on the mobile web to take advantage. 

Don’t expect the mobile wallet to get solved any time soon however.  Even though apple stores are selling the square dongle, there is still much to be worked out on the back end for real full scale consumer payments to take place.

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