2011.36 | 3D Printer as Retail Game Changer

It goes without saying that if pure music retailers had seen the rise of MP3 and iTunes a little more clearly, they may have approached things a little differently.

The march of technology affects all retailers in one way or another, and the lesson of the music industry has not been lost on the book industry.  The rise of the Kindle, the Nook, Kobo and more all indicate that retailers and content providers are approaching these radical changes intelligently; by trying to adopt them as their own and make them part of their business model before the wave of consumer demand overcomes them and makes them completely redundant.

Staying ahead of these developments involves quite a lot of guesswork.  For example, who would have anticipated the rapid adoption of smartphones driven by the iPhone less than 5 years ago.  Before that time, few retailers were asking about integrating mobile into their business in earnest – now all of them are doing so.

There is a technology that could have a huge impact on retailers in the future, but I have seen very little discussion on the point and that is 3D Printing.

For the uninitiated, 3D printers are machines that use plastics to ‘print’ small 3d items.  They work along similar lines to the old inkjet printers or plotters from the past, except that instead of using a robotic arm to just draw on a sheet of paper, they lay down layers of plastic to build a 3 dimensional object.  Once one layer is put down, the ‘print head’ is lifted a level, or the layer moves down, and another layer of plastic is put on top of the first.  As the layers build, a 3 dimensional object is formed.  A user opens a file with a 3 dimensional object plotted in it from a CAD application of some point, selects Print, and the printer does the rest.

Solutions of this type have been used for prototyping for some time, and I’ve even used some of these on mockup solutions in our labs.  What is most interesting about the technology is that it is available for purchase to consumers, and there are open source solutions to make this technology available to the masses.

The most well known option available is MakerBot Industries Thing-o-Matic, which retails for just under US$1,300.  This user assembled kit makes it possible for home printing of 3D objects.

Today, these devices just print small plastic pieces, so what is the potential impact on retailers? Let’s consider a future where these 3D printers become increasingly sophisticated.  They become as cheap and simple to obtain as our paper printers, they use stronger materials, they can print larger items, they can use different types of material, they can print very sophisticated objects and they are simple to operate as a paper printer.

If all of this were true at some point in the future,

  • It would be possible to purchase a digital copy of physical object and print it at home.
  • There would be no physical inventory to fulfill orders, no shipping to customers, and very little in the way of  logistics required.
  • No need to visit a physical store for purchase.
  • ‘Instant’ gratification for consumer.
  • There is an increased ability to handle massive swings in consumer demand as long as the server traffic can accommodate hits from consumers.
  • Ability to effectively release new products quickly as no pre-release manufacturing needs to be waited on.
  • There is a potential threat of piracy on the design of physical items – just like there is with mp3 files or eBook files.
The net impact of this type of solution could be very similar to the impact of mp3 and eBooks to brick and mortar retailers.   3D printers would drive different revenues as designs instead of products are sold, new nimble online competitors would arise, and many other retail landscape altering changes could occur.  There are already services that will print items in 3d for customers as a service, as an example.
Will this technology mature quickly or not?  What changes will occur because of it, and when?  It is impossible to say, and guessing is a sure way to look the fool in the future.   What is certain is that retailers should keep an ear to the ground to ensure that rapid progress in technology is something that is used as a potential competitive advantage, as opposed to the technology that puts a retailer out of business.

2011.07 | eBooks – Are Bookstores Dead?

eBooks are a topic on everyone’s technology discussion list these as of late.  For a great overview of what is taking place in this industry, listen to the excellent podcast Closing the Book by Sean Prpick from CBC’s Ideas.  A recent post on CBC’s Spark also discussed new creative directions for digital publishers. 

The recent bankruptcy of Borders Books in the US has certainly brought home the weight of the changes taking place.  The Kindle is Amazon’s best selling item of all time, and eBooks seem poised to overtake paperbacks and hardcover books in sales – at least at Amazon.  The New York Time is also going to start publishing a best sellers list for eBooks. 

While I knew it was a big deal when the Kindle came out in 2007, and then the Kobo and iPad in 2010, but it really struck me that the eBook was mainstream when my mother asked whether she should get an iPad, Kindle, Kobo, or Sony eReader.  I used to think eReading was for geeks at the airport reading books on their Palm Pilots.  These gadgets are for your mom now.  (Just don’t try to explain to her how she can access the internet for free on her Kindle without it being connected to anything.  Trust me.)

For eBooks, the store is now a device instead of a brick and mortar structure.  Realizing that it was important to be competitive in this new reality, many of the eReader providers have developed software that easily crosses platforms to avoid customers getting locked into a store with a device as much as possible.  Most of the of main reading solutions are able to be used on multiple devices – providing access to your reading material on the eReaders PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Blackberries, Android phones and ereaders.  For eBooks in Canada, one can use software based reading applications such as Amazon Kindle, Kobo, iBooks, GoodReader, Stanza and more.  Consumers can now hear about a book, comparison shop across various stores and purchase a book in the time it takes to get out of the house and get into a car.   The eReading app even remembers where you were in the book when you open it on a different device.

Exclusivity with one or another bookstore by certain authors can make it more costly to obtain some books, but it seems that the publishing houses (and retailers) have learned from the staggering success of iTunes to ensure that there is availiability of titles via multiple bookstores, so there is a greater opportunity to shop around more quickly than there was with music in the early days.  The process is so simple that my mom can do it without thinking. Bookstores not connected to any reader are also popping up a lot faster than music sites did – sites like: eBooks.com and Google eBookstore.  Most avid readers also know that there are millions of free books available online at the retail bookstores as well as via sites like Project Gutenburg and the Internet Archive that provide material in various electronic formats.   With solutions from Overdrive becoming increasingly common it is also possible to borrow eBooks from many local libraries.  Kindle users in US are able to lend books to each other for two weeks, spawning services like Lendle to allow strangers to loan each other eBooks.

So much for going to the old bookstore for books.  What about magazines?  Many of the magazine publishers have jumped into the iPad publishing craze.  Some magazine specific iPad apps include Wired, Popular Mechanics (you would expect those for the techheads among us), but also Time, People, Oprah’s ‘O’ Magazine and Martha Stewart Living.  These are the mainstays of magazine racks everywhere.  Do these apps deliver a better experience than the magazine?  Maybe for some.  While they are enjoyable, I personally feel it makes reading the magazines feel more like being online.  I’d rather just enjoy the magazine as I always have so far. 

This reality has driven me and many others to Zinio.    Zinio works much like the eReader apps but for magazines.  Subscribe to magazines for around the same price as the paper copy and you can read it on Mac or PC, iPad or iPhone.  One of the biggest annoyances of subscribing to a magazine was seeing the new edition on the newstand for a week or so while you waited for it to arrive at your front door.  Now consumers get the magazine immediately when it is released.  Almost any mainstream (and some non-mainstream) magazine you can imagine is on the service.  No paper to mail or throw out, and even better, no subscription cards stuck in every 3 pages.  One of the best innovations of Zinio is being able to see all of the magazine subscription information and expiry dates in one place.   No more reminders every time you go to the mailbox that it’s your last notice to renew. 

So does all of this ease of purchase and ease of use mean the death of the bookstore?  Perhaps as we know it, yes, but most retailers have learned from the past.  Decades ago railroads missed the fact that they were in the transportation business, and not the train business – losing all of their business to trucks and other formats.  Booksellers and Music Stores realize that they are in the business of selling content – not books or CDs.  You can already see these retailers changing their product mix to meet the new realities. 

Those retailers that know their businesses work as curators.  They provide advice, ideas, and interfaces into experiences.  Today’s time starved consumer is overwhelmed by the massive selection of ways to spend their time, and media to consume.  Physical stores are not going to disappear, just as books will not go away completely.  Stores will continue to act as a hub of communal interest – providing reading, performances and discussion forums. 

Brick and mortar retailers will provide value beyond the book or the CD.  Product, Price, Place, and Promotion as elements of offers don’t change – but the delivery mechanism is, and that needs to be recognized.  Understanding of the consumer, and the ability to provide what that specific consumer wants, when they want it, is absolutely key.  It’s those tools that are really just starting to come into their own.

2010.05 | iPad Store

I read a great quote recently about the Apple iPad release on Wednesday.  While Steve Jobs commented that Apple and iPad were placing themselves at the crossroads of Technology and  Liberal Arts, Stephen Fry says: “He might perhaps more accurately have said that Apple “stands at the intersection of technology, the liberal arts and commerce”.”  This is an excellent point and it will be fascinating to see whether the iPad catches on, and what impact this will have on the consumer landscape with respect to the buying and selling of media.  While many will dissect the features of the device itself, the fact of the matter is that this device and others like it are driving us ever further along the road of the new consumerism where customers don’t go to a physical store – the store is always on and always in our bag or our pocket, and the ability for instant gratification and delivery is a reality.

iTunes dwarfs all other sellers with respect to music and media online, and are now making a break towards reading material.  Amazon built internet commerce with their store and their impossibly long shelf of books.    Amazon recognized the potential of the shift to portable electronic media when they came out with the Kindle and Kindle DX.  The implications of a massively popular device that allows for downloadable media like books, newspapers and magazines are massive.  While Kindle has opened that door a crack, iPad has the potential to rip it right off the hinges with the volume of users it can bring to the party.

iTunes and other online stores have the capability to charge a reduced rate for a publication that can be provided instantly.  There is no more incentive to wait in a queue ’til midnight for the new Harry Potter novel, to wait until 5 am for your morning paper, or to wait for you monthly subscription to Wired to arrive.  It just arrives.  While the Kindle does this already, the iPad can take it up a notch by providing a more accurate reflection of the physical experience of reading a magazine and some books by providing a flashy, engaging full colour format in a novel, hip, interactive package – one upping the Kindle. 

From a consumer facing organization perspective, this opens another rich mobile channel.  With the iPad, consumers now have a web enabled (though no flash) 9.7″ 1024 x 768 screen in their hand wherever they go.  They’ve not only got the store in their pocket to buy music, movies, books, newspapers and magazines, but they have a portal to the physical world that does not currently exist. 

The package presented by the iPad transcends the problem with mobile devices – the small screen.  Now consumer facing organizations have a bigger window to show clients.  Instead of trying to order a meal from Swiss Chalet on your mobile device and having to scroll through myriad menus and sections to pick your options – all very well done considering the screen real estate at Swiss Chalet Mobile – consumers can potentially look at a menu exactly as you would see at the store, pick the items off the touchscreen, and finalize the order in a format and interface that is far more like being in the restaurant than either a PC with a mouse or a mobile device.

The GPS and compass in the solution allow that “full screen” device location enablement.  The purchaser of a new dress can look online for a matching pair of shoes online while she is in a cafe by perusing a visual search engine such as Like.com.  That shopper can now see that the pair of shoes that she likes are at Nordstrom.  If Nordstrom has thought it through, she would be able to see on their site that the store has 1 pair left of size 6, and she can have them put on hold for her at the click of a button.

The fullscreen also provides an interface more likely to drive clickthroughs on targeted advertisements as well.  This provides a potentially rich opportunity for the beleagured magazine and newspaper industries who can now provide richer feedback to advertisers on who is clicking on their ads, and allow those advertisers to use the GPS to drive offers to readers with a further level of refinement.

It appears that consumers and retailers alike are in for a richer mobile experience.

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.

2009.29 | Attack of the eReader Clones

Learning from mistakes is a basic lesson that publishers, booksellers and gadget manufacturers are not taking lightly.

Amazon is making headway on selling ebooks, claiming that Kindle growth is “very strong”, starting with the success of the original Kindle eReader, and building upon it further with the the release of the improved Kindle DX in the first half of 2009. With the success of the iPod product family and their close alignment with iTunes resulting in blockbuster sales for both – remember that iTunes sells more digital music than anyone by far and more music than most brick and mortar retailers – it seems that publishers, booksellers and electronic gadget makers are not going to ignore the potential of the electronic reading game.

Borders UK is trying Elonix, Shortcovers wants consumers to use thier mobile, Sony has a strong offering, and there are certainly no end of other models and manufacturers vying for a place in a potentially lucrative market. Magazines have also been getting into the mix, with Starwood hotels offering free digital download of popular magazines for hotel guests.

It will be interesting to see if ebooks expand in the same way as music and video. While the ebook model removes the distribution channel required for regular books and provides instant gratification with books downloadable immediately after purchase, it also requires yet another gadget with a cost. That gadget does not necessarily mimic the same experience that many consumers desire in a book. The heft of a book, the ability to fold and hold it as they wish, and even the ability to share it with friends or pass it on give the physical aspect of a book more value than with a CD.

While music is a very different consumer experience from books, it is still worth watching to see how consumers move this business, and these organizations are wise to continue to play a part in the equation.

2009.12 | Mobile Marketing | Google Voice | Going Digital

Mobile Marketing – I was thinking about this even more than usual this week; being involved in a number of meetings that warranted discussion on the subject. While being able to pass messages to customers on their mobile isn’t particularly new, giving it relevancy by location is still novel.

Acuity Mobile’s Aislecaster allows retailers to target customers with messages within 3 feet. I’m not sure that everyone will be comfortable with this right out of the gate. Businesses need to be careful that they establish rules of engagement with customers, or you wouldn’t be able to walk three feet without being bombarded with messages, which will not fly with consumers. The messages also need to be targeted, relevant, and different from what is on the shelf in front of you.

If this technology goes in the right direction it could be a terrific tool for retailers, and benefit for consumers. Both Omnifocus and GPSToDo are iphone apps that will remind you of tasks when you are near a location. Think about not forgetting the milk when you are driving home from work because when you go by the grocery store, as your phone reminds you based on location. The important issue here is that the solution needs to be voluntary and it needs to add value. If it doesn’t do that, it won’t do much.

Google Voice – I tried to sign up for Grand Central a while back, and it’s been in closed beta for some time. I’ve been looking for a tool where I can have ONE number – whether I’m on the road, on my mobile, on a landline phone or on an IP phone on the internet. Why shouldn’t this exist? Why do we need all of these numbers? Google bought Grand Central a couple of years ago, and are finally starting to push it into general use under the Google Voice name. What an awesome tool. One number for life.

Going Digital Continues – Don’t think all of this digital download hype affects you? Think again. The Itunes Store didn’t exist until 2003, and as of 2009 it sells 70% of all digital music online, as well as videos, applications and more. It became the largest seller of music in the USbigger than Wal-Mart last April (2008). From 0 to largest retailer in 5 years? Bigger than Wal-Mart? Nobody does that. It is unbelievable. “Record Stores” as we knew them are disappearing or re-inventing themselves to sell other media and products. Now look at Amazon with their Kindle Bookstore. They are looking to do the same as apple with e-books, and they have almost 250,000 titles to back it up. Traditional retailers should take notice, but I’ve not seen any of them cornering the market in the same way. These guys have captured the change in medium/format of their product, and have solved the cost of delivery problem by making it effectively 0. Watch for more.

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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