2014.22 | findbox | robots

findbox – If you’ve ever gone to a big box DIY store with a strange looking screw or bolt in hand, comparing your piece to those in little tiny drawers, findbox is the tool for you.

Findbox is a fixture mounted screen with a camera and image recognition software.  Shoppers place their item on a platform under the camera, and the system completes an image search for the item on the platform.  The system will then display a photo, name and product id of the item if it is in stock at the store.  The system also has the ability to provide shelf tags that can flash a light on the shelf to indicate where the hardware item is located in the aisle.

findboxAs a shopper who has searched for small unusual items countless times, this sounds like a wonderful concept and one I would welcome in my local DIY store.  Finding someone to help you with one screw is a bother for both parties.  If a system can do this quickly and easily, I’m all for it.  If it’s accurate, it will probably also save me trips as ideally it’s better at this than I am.

Findbox also enables retailers to own the search results enabling them to highlight found items based on whatever parameters suit their model – margin, product fit, or whatever they wish.  The retailer could also look at what is most commonly being searched on the device, and if there are commonalities, that information could be used to modify the display for ease of search, or even highlight other potential sales opportunities for related items for nearby placement.

For the right situation, this solution provides benefits to both retailer and shopper.  The retailer can ideally provide a higher level of service for more shoppers with no change in staff, and provide a service at the shoppers convenience to help them find what they need.  There is data to be gathered and potentially used for benefit.

The shopper minimizes search time and frustration and avoids the need to find staff to ask a question unless they wish to do so.  The system could potentially recommend alternative or related items they may require to finish their job and save them a trip as well.

findbox find by lightOne wonders if this solution could be taken another footprint, with an app for devices so that users can take a photo of the item and be provided details on local establishments that can supply the item.

Perhaps the logic of the solution can be provided as an API for DIY retailers to include in their own apps.  While retailers like Amazon have offered this capability for some time for Books, DVD’s, and more, I’ve not seen it for identifying hardware items.

Contractors who regularly visit DIY retailers may find this to be another useful item on their mobile device to save them time.  Virtually no shopper is going to type in a long description full of fractions and measurements to see if it is on hand at a store, but taking a picture to find something unusual would be a great way to narrow the search and save DIY regulars time and effort.

robots – Lowes certainly took the mission of finding that unusual hardware item to heart with a novel twist.  The Lowes innovation team and Fellow Robots have deployed a robot assistant in one of their California based Orchard Supply Hardware on a trial basis. The robot has the ability to capture an image of an item that a customer brings to the store, identify it, and then direct the shopper to the right location to find the item they need.

lowes-robot-1This search model takes the process a step further by having a robot greet shoppers, ask them if they need help and then lead them right to the spot where their item is located.

This is an incredible concept, and like all technology solutions in retail , there are many operational challenges to overcome:

  • Wayfinding is always challenging within the ever changing footprint of a real life retail store.  It will be important to ensure that the data here is 100% accurate on location of products and that any planogram changes are immediately passed to the system that informs the robots.   The first time the robot takes shoppers to the wrong item, they will ignore the robot for future visits.
  • Some shoppers will not want to interact with a robot for whatever reason.  This isn’t a problem, but needs to be understood and accepted.  Retail is all about choice.  Store staff need to acknowledge this solution isn’t for everyone. They should encourage usage to those who wish to use it.  It is important that the staff support the use of the robots in the stores or they will fail.  This is key.
  • Ruggedization is always a challenge in retail and hardware retail is particularly challenging based on the dirt and types of projects supported.  All technology in a retail environment requires some ongoing care and feeding for optimal usage.  Solutions with moving parts are particularly subject to failures and require ongoing maintenance.
  • Ongoing support of the robots for store staff will need to become part of the daily regimen.  Ideally the robots can recharge themselves at a station like a Roomba, but staff will need to regularly ensure that the units find their way to charging stations correctly and validate that they are still in good working order from time to time.

Whether shoppers are ready for robot assistants remains to be seen, it may be a novelty, or it may become common in the future.  Either way, it’s great to see new concepts like this being tested in retail!

All channels for retailers are viable from my perspective as long as they provide benefit to retailer and shopper and have an ROI acceptable to both.  I for one, welcome our robot overlords, and look forward to one day interfacing a point of sale engine to one of these robots so that they can complete the entire transaction and have us out the door to our self driving cars as soon as possible.

2014.17 | starbucks pre-ordering

660-Denver_Drive_ThruRecent news indicates that Starbucks will add order ahead capability to their mobile solution. I’m a daily user of the mobile payment app and even use Pebblebucks, but Starbucks may find mobile pre-ordering a more challenging system to implement.

Pre-ordering sounds great on paper and I think it can work in some environments but coffee represents some challenges.  Here are a few details that would need to be clarified:

  • What is fulfilment process? Order printer, kitchen display, other?
  • How are orders prioritized? If there is a line of customers in the store waiting, does the barista make the coffee for the absentees first?
  • When are ordered drinks made in relation to pickup time? Ice melts in cold drinks and hot drinks can cool quickly.  That’s a complicated equation for a barista with a long list of drinks to make from the till in the store.
  • How will queues be arranged in stores? Many stores are already short of real estate. Is there a separate queue or do they enter the same as everyone?
  • How do customers validate their order and take it away?
  • What happens if customers miss their pickup time?
  • How will customers and store staff be notified of the process change?  Will it require alterations to the store?  To current standardized processes that have been in place for years?

Starbucks are certainly working through the details but it will require a serious assessment of their current in store fulfilment processes. The questions above only scratch the surface.  Adding pre-ordering is a significant change to the system which will require the acceptance of new processes by both store staff and customers.

Panera Bread’s Founder and CEO Ron Shaich is embarking on just such a process and is doing the necessary legwork to change the business at the operational level. This is the right approach of Starbucks is committed to pre-orders. The right setup will require significant testing and adjustment.  Tacking a mobile ordering tool on the app is just the tip of the iceberg.  It’s the behind the scenes work that will have this system sink or swim.

From my perspective, there are too any places where pre-ordering can go wrong.

At a grocer I worked with, a kiosk was installed by the deli counter for ordering sliced cheese and meats. The concept was to enter your order and then complete your shopping through the rest of the market and return later with a ticket to pick up the order.  Instead of waiting in line, shoppers could shop while their order was assembled and pick up their deli order just prior to checkout.

What happened in reality is that shoppers saw a queue at the deli counter, walked over to the kiosk, entered an order, printed a ticket, and then walked to the deli counter and demanded their order from staff that were already slammed and getting order requests from two separate systems. This ended up displeasing staff, the kiosk users and shoppers who had waited in the ‘traditional’ line. Beyond these concerns, there was no obvious ROI from such a solution.  They didn’t buy more meat.

There was and is nothing wrong with the technology.  The technology is the easy part.  The system just didn’t fit the store without changing processes and customer expectations and making that plain to all parties.   Without complete commitment to a new paradigm by all parties, the result will be failure.

Imagine you walk into a Starbucks that is slammed with customers.  There is a long line and a 10 minute wait.  With this new system, how many people are going to see the queue, pull out their mobile and try to order with that to skip the queue? With the number of users Starbucks have for their mobile app, many people will certainly attempt this. If it works, it’s unfair to those in line. If it doesn’t, they may place a second order, putting strain on an already overloaded system.  Either way, it now adds thought to the process. Do I order ahead on the morning commute or just go in the store.

For any new system to flourish, there must be value to the retailer and to the customer. Whether there is value to both here remains to be seen. Customers may get their coffee faster, but if the process falters it could slow the whole store system. Will Starbucks sell more coffee? I’m not sure that pre-ordering will drive more sales.  Pre-ordering complicates the store system with what could be little upside to stores or customers.

photo-2-250x375If Starbucks wants to improve the process for stores and clients, they should consider ways of speeding transactions without making major changes to its fulfillment process which works fine as far as I have seen.  Ordering and order entry at Starbucks can range from the simple to the complex. Some customer get a Tall Pike Place.  Done.  Some customers ask for coffees with 6 adjectives and it takes baristas many keystrokes to enter.  Even simple orders require many keystrokes.  I order a very simple drink and always need to wait while the barista enters my order – though the staff at my store even have my order memorized.  It takes 10-15 touches to enter the order.  I’ve watched.

Consider an alternative to pre-ordering to kill the line.

  • If orders require many keystrokes and many users order the same thing again and again, why not automate the order entry?  Starbucks has more than 10 million users for their mobile app.  Users are trained to use the app to pay.
  • Why not build a drink builder that allows users to configure and save drinks within the app?
  • Use the Starbucks app to configure a drink as it used to do.
  • The app generates a unique id barcode that repesents that drink order.  The code is saved on the phone for repeated use.
  • Customer scans their mobile at the POS on currently installed scanner to order.
  • The barcode can be a string that the register recognizes as the full drink with all foams, soys, non-fats, whatever.
  • The point of sale system is populated with the drink details and the barista can confirm with the customer instead of tapping 15 times.
  • Avoiding entry would save precious seconds off of many transactions, and increase throughput.
  • Avoiding entry by barista could also enable consumers to order something different than their usual without having to figure out how to order it and go through the translation discussion with the barista.
  • Users could share their codes with friends and save them in their own apps so that we can order for them correctly.
  • Don’t these guys know my name?  With a bit of customization the customers name can show on the screen so we don’t see any more of those cups with the crazy names on them, speeding the pickup process.

Pre-ordering could work, and I am hopeful that Starbucks will find the magic formula to make it so, but I’m not yet convinced that this will make lines shorter.  It doesn’t look like a simple path, but kudos for trying something new!

Simple is good.  Even if something isn’t simple on the back end, it must appear that way to clients.

2013.31 | freeosk | oyster | paypal beacon

3015672-slide-s-3-freeosk-the-redbox-of-free-samplesFreeosk – Why not automate the process of providing free samples at grocery stores?  The Freeosk can be installed in a store for automatic dispensing of free samples.  I can take or leave the need to have someone hand me a piece of a granola bar in a cup.

While it looks like a space saver, using the space to give samples AND provide a product display, the most interesting part of this kiosk is that shoppers scan their loyalty card to get their sample.  This provides retailers an opportunity to figure out if the free samples are driving business and to whom.  As an added bonus, maybe it would stop all the scofflaws from drinking more than their fair share of the free apple cider at my market! via Fast Company

oysterOyster – Applying the the strategy that Pandora, Spotify and Songza use for music, Oyster is offering a subscription based service for books.  They have 100,000 ebooks; you have 9.99 a month and you can read all you wish.  It’s great to see subscription based services on offer, but it’s yet another blow to bookstores and paper lovers everywhere.  Now if we can just get a service like Whispersync on a subscription basis.

paypal beaconPayPal Beacon – Paypal recently released their homage to 2001: A Space Oddysey  – the Paypal Beacon – to enable payments via bluetooth.  I look forward to this type of disruption in payments.  As a consumer, I hate carrying cash, and I’m interested in dumping cards as well.  The best transaction is one where I didn’t even notice it happening, and geofenced solutions like these can make it happen.

As someone involved in retail point of service installations, I’ve seen the incredible effort involved in making systems work with payments.  It’s difficult to break away from that complexity, but there are definitely moves afoot that indicate this complexity may be overcome.  It’s wonderful that the likes of Paypal and Google Wallet have new apps that are branching out of their traditional areas to enable payments from the consumer end.  From the retailer end, organizations like my employer (NCR), are providing options with solutions like our connected payments solution to simplify the back end challenges.

While it doesn’t appear that cash is disappearing anytime soon, retail is all about choice.  If you want to pay with cash, you should be able to do so.  If you want to pay with debit or credit, that should be easy for retailers to implement and for customers to use.  We aren’t there yet, but it does look like there is finally some progress to enable the transactions of tomorrow.

2013.10 | Customs Kiosk | Starbucks Square Issues


Canada Customs Self Service – After traveling out of the country recently, I had the opportunity to use Canada Border Services Automated Border Clearance solution in place at Pearson Airport and Vancouver Airports.

The system works very similarly to the original method used in speaking to an agent.    Canadians coming home to Canada fill in the customs form by hand on the plane as usual, and proceed to the customs area at the airport.   Instead of proceeding to an agent, the handlers in the area will ask you if you wish to leverage self service.   If you opt to use the kiosks, you approach, select your language, and follow the instructions on the screen.  Users insert a completed customs form in the slot below the screen, and then scan your passport(s).  The kiosk will categorize travelers with a code indicating whether you may proceed, or speak to an agent.  Then a printed copy of the populated form with the code as a watermark over the form is produced.  In my case, I had indicated I had nuts with me, which required intervention, and had to speak to an agent who passed me through quickly on my way.

While having to speak to the agent after using the kiosk was a bit frustrating, the vast majority of the times I cross the border I would have had no issue at all.  The kiosks are very simple to use, they have a huge green light at the top indicating availability and instructions are shown simply and on screen.  About the only criticism I can make is that it’s a waste of paper to print out a copy of the form which is already a waste of paper.  Moving towards electronic interfaces in these situations will take time, and this is a wonderful step towards simplifying this much loved process.


Starbucks Square Issues – Fast Company recently reported on issues that Starbucks has experienced around implementing the acceptance of payments via Square Wallet.  The fundamental issue appears to be a challenge with communicating the ability to accept Square Wallet at Starbucks at their outlets.  I read this article with a great deal of interest.  I’ve been part of numerous deployments in retail and there are so many opportunities for a deployment with a great concept to go awry.

In order to justify a change to a retail solution, there have to be benefits:

First, there must be a benefit to the retailers’ customers.  At first glance, that appears to be missing.  At present, the benefit of using Square over the standard Starbucks mobile app is a bit of a puzzler.  If they use Square Wallet, customers don’t get to count purchases toward future free beverages as part of the Starbucks loyalty program.  That is actually a DIS-incentive to use Square Wallet.  If Starbucks want to drive usage, they should change that.

Second, there must also be a benefit to the retailer.  I don’t see a real benefit to Starbucks beyond the ability to accept another payment method.  It would seem that drawing additional traffic with additional payment options would not be a key driver at stores with long lines in place most of the time.  In fact, throughput would be more of an issue, and the acceptance of Square as portrayed in the article is actually a hindrance to throughput.

Hopefully there is more to this solution than meets the eye.  It would seem logical to assume that getting the Square Wallet in place at Starbucks is to lay the foundation for the geolocation version of Square Wallet which would allow tendering without presenting a mobile device at all.  That would provide benefits for both the Starbucks and their customers.

2012.42 | Tech Trends to Shape 2013

Fast Company recently released an article about the technology trends that will Shape 2013.  These 20 items cover a broad range, but almost all of them are worthy of consideration by retailers.  Check out just a few of these items.

CaptureSmartphone accessories become smarter – As the article indicates, smartphone accessories are already getting smarter. Going beyond the usual accessories like Nike Fuel, Jawbone Up, Fitbit, and Wemo, we can expect to see a whole range of accessories such as the AliveCor ECG referenced by Fast Company article.

From a retail perspective, this trend will drive a market for new devices, but for retailers and shoppers it also provides more shopping channels. Consider prescription pill bottles that can ensure you take your meds and automatically add refills to the mobile app on your smart phone when they are near the end of supply. Consider electric toothbrushes that remind your smart phone that you are due to replace your toothbrush head. These are just two examples of how devices and products in our home can talk to our smart phones.

Retailers need to be certain that they are prepared to take advantage of these sorts of small changes as they occur so that their brands are positioned to take advantage of these technologies to simplify shopping for their targeted consumers and lock them in like the Amazon Kindle Store does for eBooks or iTunes does for music.

Think how easy it would be go connect this to Amazon Subscribe & Save.  Consumers don’t even need to wait.  They could build their own with enabled devices using IFTTT to get different services to talk to each other to do this.

800px-Jurvetson_Google_driverless_car_trimmedWe lose control of our cars – Google and all of the auto manufacturers certainly seem to be pushing towards making self driving cars a reality. Autonomous vehicles are now legal in Nevada, Florida and California and have driven thousands of miles already.  Volvo is looking to have self driving cars in 2014.

This completely changes the shopping perspective when going from one destination to another doesn’t involve being part of the driving process. Imagine a new sort of shopping regimen created by the free time given to people by not having to drive. Imagine how important it will be for retailers to have inventory online by store so that our cars using our smartphones can direct us through the best possible route to get home and get all the things on our shopping lists to get on with our lives.

Once again it’s important for retailers to keep an eye on these sorts of developments and make their systems as open as possible for services to be leveraged so that consumers can interact with them from whatever channel they choose.

We embrace a new kind of patina – This idea says that what makes things ours will not be the scratches and dents on the watch we use our whole life, but the personality we bring to our profile.   That personality will be something that drives our interactions with consumer facing organizations.

Leveraging the information that consumers are willing to share with retailers along with low cost technology means that more and richer experiences can be provided using alternative interfaces within stores.    This means using their data to identify them and to provide them a customized experience based on their preferences, past purchase history and more.  These interactions could be with any sort of screen – large format, projected, or anything.

From a retailer perspective this means that touchpoints and content are more important than ever.  Thinking through the message, the brand, and what the touchpoints are meant to be are a key element of any roadmap.  Operations, marketing and technology need to be inextricably linked for any of this to work at all, let alone achive a differentiated successful solution.

CaptureHuman computer interaction gets more humanistic – Computer interaction from a retail perspective is already becoming more humanistic with tools like Siri (Book a table for 2 at 6) Google Voice Search (Where can I buy a copy of Shawshank redemption) that allow voice interactions to transact. Projected virtual assistance at stores like Duane Reade automate greetings or the sharing of information required at consumer facing place of business with a human like interaction. As the technology gets more sophisticated, we can expect a personal shopper that can discuss our shopping options in a more Siri like interactive conversation.

This provides the opportunity for retailers to provide a more curated customer specific experience in a consistent targeted manner that can be updated centrally.

Data ecology becomes more diverse – The amount of data generated is exploding.  That’s not news.  From a retailer perspective, there  are new sources to consider.  eBook readers can tell us how long it takes people to read a book.  It can tell us if they finished it or not.   It goes way deeper, allowing for a new level of understanding of clients.   New channels mean more data and more complexity.

From a retailer perspective, it will be important that all of these new channels take into account how data will be gathered and analyzed.  If you build a mobile app and only 400 people use it, that may sound like a loser if you have thousands of stores.  However, those may be your most important customers that lead the rest of  your customer base.  Without the data to understand who they are, retailers could mistakenly discontinue their most important customers’ favourite channel.

Interaction choreography goes shopping / Faces become interfaces – These are just new flavours of interactive experiences in malls.  Gesture based catalogs on large format screens is to yesterday’s gift registry kiosk as the 60″ flatscreen is to yesterday’s 23″ tube television.  The facial recognition is interesting, but will certainly bring up some issues around privacy.  Both of these fall under the comments on the patina item above.

The article has many other great items.  Read them all.  Stay open to new ideas, and consider how they will influence your business and your customers.  Most importantly ensure that anything considered brings value to the organization and the customer – however you define value.

2012.40 | eBay Now | Siri | Screens

Screen Shot 2012-12-04 at 10.57.27 PMeBay Now App – This app takes me back to the days of the early 2000’s with startups like Kozmo.com.  eBay recently released the eBay Now App that allows consumers to order products for delivery ‘in about an hour’ from tier one retailers like Office Depot, Best Buy, Target, and Macy’s.  Initially available in San Francisco and some parts of New York, I’m sure these more traditional retailers welcome another channel in which to compete with rival Amazon – especially given Jeff Bezos’ expressed desire to open stores, and their Local Express Delivery option. (Anyone else notice that the demo you see at left on the US App Store shows a Canadian Carrier? Alrighty, then.)

Screen Shot 2012-12-04 at 11.01.20 PM

Siri – It appears that GM won the race to be first to get a deal with Apple to have Siri interfaced to a vehicle.  Apparently their Sonic and Spark models will have integration with Siri.  Frankly, this information is somewhat underwhelming.  I can interface Siri with my 2009 Volvo today by pressing the call button and instead of asking it to call someone, I just say a command to Siri as one always would.    Being able to control my mobile with my voice is useful.   It’s incredible to be able to  send and receive texts and control my music while leaving my mobile safely away from my hands and eyes.   What would be fantastically helpful is if Siri and/or Google Voice Search could integrate more fully with my TomTom app.  As it sits today, with both of these voice controlled programs, users can ask for suggestions on the closest Starbucks or the best burrito place in the area.

While I condone safe driving and don’t want to distract anyone from what should be their main focus, we have to anticipate the future.    Search is only going to get smarter.  Siri and Google Voice Search are only going to get more sophisticated.  In future, when we consult our voice activated personal assistants, we may be asking for the nearest location to find a Tide Pen, or the best route to take if we drop off our dry cleaning and grab some milk and eggs on the way home.  This could be less distracting to driving by letting the internet do the thinking, while improving people’s organization.  This means retailers that share their store data online have an opportunity to drive more traffic to their stores in future.rea, but they can’t transition to giving us directions while we drive without touching the mobile.

Tesco Screens – At their recent internal conference, Tesco highlighted a few technologies they are planning on using in store including virtual mirrors, and an endless aisle solution.  These technologies have been around for some time, but it’s interesting to see them show up in the press. They are formerly known as kiosk solutions, but I just call them screens.


The virtual mirrors still feel a bit thin to me.  If I’m at the store and I like the outfit, why don’t I just try it on?  If I see it virtually it doesn’t really give me a great concept of how it’s going to look in real life.  The video on the best of them is jumpy.  Take it further, and I expect it’s a lot of work to keep all of the fashion collections updated every season.  I’ve played with this concept at American Eagle’s 77 kids stores (see image at right), and while it was obviously put together with a great deal of care and the app looked wonderful on the screen, it feels gimmicky and not particularly useful.

Screen Shot 2012-12-04 at 11.20.08 PM

The endless aisle kiosk solution is certainly more interesting.  This is a solid revenue generating solution that can be measured directly for performance.  If Tesco don’t have the toy at the store that I want, I can add it to my shopping basket on my mobile for future purchase, or I can order it directly from the kiosk.  The large format screen is really engaging.  If done right, this solution can leverage good work already done for the e-commerce website at Tesco.  A nice looking, useful, and ROI driving solution is always a win.

2012.38 | More Channels are Better

The Government of Ontario recently announced that it will be removing their network of 72 ServiceOntario Kiosks installed across the province.  The kiosks have sat unused for a number of months already as anyone who lives in Ontario can attest.  They are placed in many high traffic shopping areas across the province, and were strangely more noticeable these past few months without the usual line of 5-10 people around them.

Unfortunately it appears that the kiosks were targeted by criminals using skimming devices, and in reading between the lines, it appears that the government officials got very nervous about the potential for both payments fraud and for the security of the data of the citizens of Ontario.

As anyone who works in retail or banking can tell you, unfortunately there is always a certain level of fraud you can expect to see across any network with payments.  Pinpads are stolen or compromised from point of sale locations every day.  Attempts are made to skim the information of customers from ATMs.   So it goes.

While there is no way to eliminate fraud completely – electronic or otherwise, there are certainly options to minimize fraud on self service devices.   Admittedly, there are extra costs involved in taking precautions, and those will have to change over time as technology and fraud tactics adjust, but that’s really just part of doing business with self service, assisted service or any other consumer facing situation.    As with anything in life, it seems a shame to allow a few malcontents to ruin something that is helpful and useful to so many.

Unfortunately if you add in political posturing to this equation, it’s not terribly surprising that a government official will claim he’s protecting the public so that he can put a check mark of benefits he has provided to the voter on the mailer he gets Canada Post to send us every quarter.  That’s the game politicians have to play, but I find it surprising that any person who  walks around with a bank card, a credit card, or even a library card in his wallet can express his concern that he will not support a system that is not ‘foolproof’.  No system is completely foolproof by definition.  If you look at the comments from to the article in the Star, I don’t see any comments from people being concerned about their user data or financial data.  The comments revolve around their preferences for kiosks, people, or online, and some even make suggestions on how to fix the issue.

I used the kiosks for years and found them useful, but this year I changed over to their online service to get my new plate stickers and I found it very easy to use,  I had my stickers well before the renewal date, and I avoided lines as well as a trip to the mall.

That said, consumers increasingly expect to interface with organizations in the channel of their choosing.  I prefer online and mobile transactions, but my wife likes to transact with a real person.  I have friends who prefer the kiosk for whatever reason.

Today’s forward thinking organizations provide as many channels as are relevant and possible for consumers to ensure that they get all of the services they need.  That objective should not be limited to retail, banking or travel.  Government is a consumer facing body, and if they don’t offer the services consumers want, they will eventually face a consumer backlash or miss out on a potential cost savings or revenue benefit for their organization.

As far as the kiosks go, the implementation of a new network of kiosks is a huge investment.  With that behind them, it seems a shame that the government would just throw it all away in the name of security and savings.  Why not place the kiosks in ServiceOntario centres to reduce the load for overworked staff and to reduce the queue lengths?  The units are less likely to have security issues if staff are nearby and they could be made inaccessible after hours to further avoid tampering.

While the online option is terrific and probably growing, ask any one of the dozens of people in line at ServiceOntario sites if they would rather use a kiosk right now or wait 20 minutes to talk to a live person and see what they say.  In the end, it’s all about consumer choice, and removing a choice is a shame.

2012.30 | Passbook | Touch Wall | TipJar

iOS 6 Passbook – With the release of iOS 6 comes Passbook, and those of us in retail can start to see how pre-cursor to a mobile wallet really works.  As someone who uses tickets on my mobile for movies (Cineplex) and airlines (Air Canada, WestJet, United), this is an idea I can get behind.  I also have a bunch of loyalty cards I already use, some on my mobile, and some in my glove compartment

On the ticket side, I really look forward to avoiding screen caps, and then having my ticket autorotate as photos do when I turn my phone from portrait to landscape, or dim when I’ve been waiting too long.

I’m just updating my iPhone tonight, so I haven’t tested it on my own device.   Lots of keen users have already started posting their experiences.  There are a number of apps that are already Passbook CompatibleCineplex appears to be my sole option in Canada, and it’s sorta working.  It turns out you can also add passbook items to your passbook without an app passing the data via PassSource.

Let me know your experiences with Passbook.  I’ll be sharing mine.

Touch Wall – Looking for an entire wall of touchscreen LCDs so that you can blow your clients’ minds with interaction?  Engage Production in the UK has a new demo screen for clients that is composed of 24 linked 55 inch touch displays.  While there are some incredible things that can be done with a space of that magnitude, you have to wonder at all of the associated costs and how that can be used to drive business.  It’s difficult to come up with engaging content for any space let alone something so large!

It would be incredible to use this as a giant video wall display or split into screens with various types of media playing, and then allow customers to touch a spot anywhere on the display to initiate an individual screen usage area that could be defined by the application.

Now an interactive self service applications that is defined by the hardware in place has a great deal more flexibility.  Just turn on the app at the site, and give customers the option!

Customers could touch on an image of a shoe on the wall, and see a 360 degree representation they can manipulate.  Perhaps the system can have store staff  paged to bring a sample shoe to try for fit.  If the product is out of stock in their size, provide directions sent to their mobile on how to get to another store, or have the shoes shipped to their home.  If new products or ideas come up, change the apps and how clients interact.

TipJar – Seems like someone figured out one answer to my question about how we deal with
the age old tips problem in the age of electronic transactions.   The problem many of us have is that we never carry cash, but on the rare occasion where a cash tip is the only option, running to the ATM for $20 isn’t really a viable option.  Enter DipJar – a jar with an MSR built in.  If you want to tip someone, you dip your card in the MSR/Jar, and $1 is passed.  No more cash or someone stealing tips from the counter.  At the same time we can maintain the Funny Tip Jar tradition.

2012.14 | Technology and Timing

It’s fascinating to me that ideas that are becoming reality now are those that would never even have been considered even a few years ago.  The increasing comfort of the general public with mobile computing and touchscreens as well as increasing reliability, and decreasing costs are removing barriers at an increasing rate of speed.   Consider a few examples.

Scan and Ship – Looks like the HomePlus experiment of scanning virtual shelves to populate a shopping cart on the mobile has started a bit of a trend.  Well.ca did the same thing in Canada, Giant in the US and others have been giving it a try as well.  It’s a simple extension of current technology and has a low barrier to entry, so why not?  Smart phones are increasingly common, there is some novelty to it, and most everyone is now comfortable with online purchases.  Sounds obvious, but this wasn’t always the case.

Phone Booth 2.0 – It seems NYC is experimenting with touchscreen kiosks in former phone booths.  Once again, why not?  It’s a good use of current space.  The phone booths provide some infrastructure needed for a kiosk or digital signage implementation – a metal frame with some weatherproofing, connectivity and proximity to a large base of potential users and viewers.  The offering is at no cost to the city, and presumably would be paid for by advertisements and chargeable services.

Biometric ATMsNCR offered iris scan solutions some years ago but it never caught on; ahead of its time perhaps.  A Japanese bank is experimenting with ATMs that use palm readers to identify users.   In the past, I would have a lot of questions on the potential value and concerns around privacy.

Customers today are increasingly interested lightening their wallet and not having to remember to carry a card.  Millennials are more confident with technology and are willing to try something for the fun factor.  Corporations are always interested in providing the appearance of being forward thinking and tech savvy.  The Japanese are used to using a mobile to interface with an ATM, so perhaps this is a natural progression.

Wayfinding – It’s easy to forget a time we didn’t have google maps and cheap and easy to use GPS units, as they have become so embedded in our lives.  Taking that ease of direction into buildings – like malls or stores has ever been the elusive last mile.  Wayfinding projects in store are challenging because of the constantly shifting nature of retail.  As displays and stores are constantly rearranged, even if someone sets up a kiosk to find items in the store, it is either wrong, or requires constant updating – a challenging effort that rarely seems to reward the work required.  Perhaps the first step towards crossing this mile comes is a tool from Google.  Google is offering Google Maps Floor Plans to start to map out the indoors.  While it doesn’t get products in place, it does begin to provide some help in larger venues.

I’d like to think that at some point Electronic Shelf Label could have a unique id on them that could be shared with a mobile device that would allow the user to find an item based on the location of the ESL.

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.

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