2013.06 | No Omnichannel without Operations

All of my talks on Omnichannel with retailers drive me to try out every option I possibly can with my own transactions.

Last weekend I went to see Bharati in at the Sony Centre in Toronto. (I highly recommend the show by the way.  See it if you can!)  Being part of a busy family our weekend was packed with events, ride giving, lessons, and more.  I found myself getting ready to leave the house only about 2 hours before the show – this is definitely cutting it close.


While I was preparing to depart, I used all of the tools technology available to enable to get there on time.  Ticketmaster was kind enough to send me a reminder email about the event on Friday, so I was able to pull up that message and logging into my account, I printed my tickets.  Great omnichannel experience from Ticketmaster.   It costs too much for Ticketmaster, but it worked smoothly to the point where I didn’t even think about it.

I know the route to get to the theatre well, but always check the GPS routes for options.  I also had to think about parking. Everyone who goes to any urban location knows that parking is a changeable proposition.  Your favourite sites get built upon, closed up, or changed to some other use.

I visited the Sony Centre website to see what parking options were recommended, and I was intrigued by a link to something called Click and Park.

When I clicked that link, I saw a list of the events at the Sony Centre.  The system allows you to pre-pay for a parking spot during your event in a prime location right next to the theatre.  It makes a lot of sense to have a parking spot reserved in a convenient location.  The site indicates the process is as simple as three easy steps: choose your event, select your location and print your permit.  I read through the FAQs, and decided I definitely wanted to try this.  What a terrific idea to optimize a consumer experience and that of a parking lot operator.

I picked my event, validated the parking garage, and paid.  I quickly received my permit.  The pricing was high.  It was $22.42, including fees and the cost of parking.  I expected it to be more like $10 to $15 for a weekend, but I was willing to pay a bit of a premium for a good guaranteed spot, and well – this was for science.  I wanted to see how it worked.

The parking location is a garage I have frequented many times over the years, so I knew where I was going.    I was parking at the Brookfield Place garage.  I did a bit of checking as I know that there are multiple entrances.  One off  Wellington Street and one from Front Street at least.  Both were referred to on the Click and Park website so I figured I was ready to go.

CaptureI printed my permit, hopped in the car, and drove downtown, smug in the knowledge that I had parking covered.  As I approached the lot, I encountered my first problem.  I knew where I was going, but I like to double check any special instructions.  I pulled out my parking permit to double check the address and see what instructions were provided.

Unfortunately, the permit just says Brookfield Place.  Um, ok.  It also says 5pm to 6 am.  Wait, what? My show is on at 2 pm.  It says that right on there.  What does that mean?

Now, what if I didn’t know the address?  Would have been nice to have that on there, right?  Oh well, when I looked at the website, there was lots of friendly green and blue Web 2.0 branding.  I’m sure there will be some sort of signage to point me in the right direction.

I found the lot (after taking a detour – downtown construction being what it always is), and drove up to the kiosk.  I pulled out my form, ready to scan it at….at…..well, nothing.  There was no scanner.  There was no signage indicating what to do.  There was no logo from Click and Park telling me what to do.  There was a flashing light.  Thought that might be a scanner, but no.

Now, I like to think that I know what a scanner looks like.  If you glance through the blog, you will see I’ve worked with a few scanners.  I did not see a scanner, any signage, or any indication of anything other than pushing a button to get a ticket.  So….I pushed the button to get a ticket.

I drove through the garage.  No signage.  No indication that Click and Park exists at all.  I walked through the garage to the event, and saw no indication of Click and Park.

After my very enjoyable show, I thought perhaps I would see a scanner on the way out.  I drove up to the machine on the way out, and with a much more extensive search can assure you that there is no scanner on the exit system either.  I dutifully paid Brookfield Place $10 and departed.

Now, I can’t speak to how this Click and Park solution works in other places, and when I read through their site, I see all sorts of venues that love this system.  It may work well in those spots, but they are not going to get much in the way of business in Toronto without some changes.

If an omnichannel solution like this is going to work, it needs to work for everyone, virtually without them having to think.  I go well beyond the average person to seek out answers and make systems work, but this whole thing does not work at all.   I’m willing to take the $22 (well, maybe $32) hit for science, but I don’t think all of the potential clients of the Sony Centre will feel the same.

This is all about making it easy – not about making the user do the work.

Here’s what I hope the good team at Click and Park consider:

1.  FULL Process Transparency: Providing a process that goes beyond Click and Park getting money and the user printing a piece of paper is important.  That’s all that shows on the website.  It’s great graphic design, but it’s not going to help customers.  I understand that individual parking sites may vary on a process because different parking lots look different and have different systems.  In the interim, why not have specific images or video of the parking lots and how it works?  When you pick a parking lot on the site, it should show the user those images of the process (like scanning a barcode at a gate) so they can see what to expect.  If clients feel comfortable they will try the service and are more likely to use it successfully.  Once you have repeat customers; inertia can carry the solution more.

2.  Better directions: Writing Brookfield Place on a piece of paper is next to useless for the user driving in an urban centre.  Give an address at LEAST.  Better yet, provide some verbiage with details on parking – maybe even an image of the front entrance.   Why not provide a link to Google Maps with the garage on it so I can click an an email or text on my smart phone to get directions on my GPS?  There is no other Brookfield Place, but I’m still not sure if I went to the wrong place or what happened.

3.  Signage: Working with partners can be challenging, but there absolutely needs to be signage at a partner garage above or near the entrance.  If there’s no signage, I’m not sure I’m in the right place.  There should also be signage at entrance welcoming Click and Park guests with some simple instructions like: scan your barcode at the gate next to you.  On the gate itself, there should be some signage with the logo and simple instructions on how to use it.

4.  Recovery: If I as a user somehow manage to make an error in the process, like I forget to scan my card, there should be a way to recover.  The only recovery I saw was a message in my email saying no refunds.  Wrong message.  There should be signage at elevators coming back to the garage for Click and Park clients saying that if they missed scanning their codes, they can go to a certain place to get a new ticket, see an attendant or whatever works.   As a user, I now have a negative feeling of the Click and Park brand and about Brookfield Place.  If you make it easy, everybody wins.

5. Followup:  If I didn’t use the parking space, I should get a text or email asking me why I did not use it.  Click and Park has a list of tickets.  The Parking Lot has a list of tickets.  Mine isn’t on it. Why not ask me why it didn’t work out?   This is a missed opportunity to be sure the solution is working correctly and to gain feedback from users and the site staff.

I fully realize the effort required to complete the items I  have suggested here, but with absolute certainty I can say that this service may as well not exist if it doesn’t revisit its processes.   This is a terrific idea, and I hope it takes off.  For now it just feels like someone slapped a payments website up with this parking lot’s name on it.  It takes more than that for a solution like this to work.  It has to be completely aligned with the operation of the site.

I know I’m $22 smarter from my experience.  I fully expect the value on the knowledge Click and Park will be a much higher amount in the end if they don’t change things up.

2013.02 | 2D Codes and Point of Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1D barcode characteristics:

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

These codes are about simple and speeding transactions.

2D barcode characteristics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012.11 Mobile Pizza | Produce Scanning | Pay with Square

Mobile Pizza – Love this new bluetooth fridge magnet to order Pizza from Red Tomato in UAE.  On receipt, customers sync the bluetooth magnet to their mobile phone once, and then whenever they want pizza, they press the button on the fridge and their favourite order is automatically placed for delivery to their home.  The customer gets a confirmation text and a pizza for dinner.  Hope the battery on that thing lasts for a while.  Great and novel idea.

Produce Image Scan – Toshiba TEC recently showed off a new scanning solution that enables scanning of produce with images in order to speed checkout.  The imagers can apparently recognize the produce held in front of them instead of the more traditional methods of requiring a barcode, PLU code or the use of a pick list on paper or electronically.

Interestingly while this is touted as a new solution, I have seen versions of this technology for some years now – most often by scale manufacturers.  Imaging is certainly much better than it was even a few years ago, so this technology must have improved since I looked at it last, but I still see some holes.

– Can it tell the difference between organic and traditional produce?  Not sure how that could possibly happen based on colour and texture.  Last I checked, there is a serious price delta between those two items – both in cost and price.   This sort of shortcoming is a real problem for North American supermarkets, as this is a potential revenue and margin loss at checkout in a very small margin business.

– Can it still tell the colour and texture through plastic packaging?  In most North American supermarkets, produce is not purchased without some sort of packaging – particularly if more than 1 item is purchased.  Might work, but I would want to see that.

– The spokesman says it will come with a database, but what does this do to store infrastructure?  Does it have to reside on every POS?  Is it large as it has images to compare on it?  How does it get updated after implementation.  Nobody has a complete database of produce, and if they did, it is bound to be large.  No store actually would have all produce meaning the full database would be larger than necessary.  To include only what is on hand in a store would require database management.  Even if the database was comprehensive, new products are always coming on the scene.  As items like the newly released Sumo come on the market, they will have to be carefully added to the database.  How does that happen?  One can’t just type in Sumo – 49 cents per pound with a PLU.  It would need to be a carefully orchestrated update.

– I hate to pick on their ergonomics, as this is obviously a demonstration, but those poor cashiers would eventually hurt themselves bending to pick up produce from a basket to scan and place in another basket.  It makes more sense to slide, or at least have a table at the right height to lift from.  There is also no scale, so pricing would only be per unit and not by the pound.  If this were to be implemented it would need to be part of a scanner -scale solution.

I think it’s a great idea and I would love to see it work, but there are a lot of kinks to be worked out before this thing hits the public – in North America in any case.

Pay with Square – Square recently rebranded their Card Case solution as Pay with Square.  The payment system allows for payment without removing a wallet or phone from the users pocket.  It’s based on geolocation.  Users are identified by the pictures on the point of sale device.  Beyond the rebranding, the app has been redesigned with a more functional interface, and to allow full functionality on both the Android and iPhone versions.  Still waiting for Canada, but expect EMV makes that unlikely.

2012.09 | Lytro & Future Photography

If you haven’t heard of it yet, the Light Field Camera  recently released by Lytro is certainly worthy of consideration for any professional involved in technology solely because of its uniqueness.

The Lytro camera uses a completely different sort of sensor from those used in current digital cameras to capture images. This sensor captures light from various angles and means that there is no need to focus a camera lens at time of image capture. Images are captured and the focus and other settings are adjusted by downloading images and tweaking them with software. Check out an example below. Click to focus on an area, double click to zoom.

See more examples.

This makes possible or simplifies an incredible range of ideas applicable to retail.

Consider a few quick examples:

  • Interactive experience – Online interactive websites or in store screens with photos of a store interior that can zoom and focus when you point to certain areas of the image. This could provide a unique and detailed online shopping experience more akin to a bricks and mortar experience where that is desirable.
  • Unique Offers / Experiences / Marketing – Given the ability to refocus images on the fly, there are vast opportunities for creative uses to engage customers in contests, offers, new product unveilings and the like.
  • Security – Security cameras that are always in focus around store sites. This could ease the job of security staff and make real the hilarious ‘let’s enhance’ scenes of fame in movies and TV.
  • Scanning – Using light field cameras could make scanning with cameras at point of sale faster than current bar code scanning technologies by recognizing multiple items at once. It could even mean the end of barcodes. With faster recognition, we could finally leave 1d and even 2d barcode symbologies behind with more sophisticated recognition algorithms as long as an easily updated database and identification protocol is in place. Based on current software and processing power, this could be some way off.

While the technology is still in its rudimentary form, with first gen cameras that are glorified squared off lens telescopes, and images that take a minute to fully process on high end processors, the idea has still ignited a great deal of interest in tech circles. This sort of technology shift could take ‘point and shoot’ photography to a new level of simplicity. It could rank up there with Kodak bringing photography to the masses, or Polaroid instant photography, but with the expanded reach of photography today, its applications are potentially even more widespread.

2011.22 | Where to use mobile POS

Recent efforts at the office have me thinking about businesses that might want to use mobile POS.

I have a mobile POS unit up and running and have been demonstrating its use around the office and to clients. Whenever I demo the solution to colleagues I have had consistent comments that come down to the fact that it’s a really cool solution, but people seem uncertain of where it could be leveraged best.

Mobile POS capability and queue busting have been available for years now. I’ve played with various devices and platforms and it’s never caught on in volume, but with mobile now so recognizable for consumers this form factor is the hot thing of the moment.  I’ve started to see it in wider deployment, but you have to wonder if EMV will hold us back in Canada.  Apple store and Air Canada use it in Canada, but Home Depot are using it in the US and Disney and Gap have been getting into it.

No matter what platform a retailer chooses, it is absolutely fundamental to consider how the platform will be leveraged in an operation.  If the objectives of a mobile unit are not clearly defined, and mobile is not fully integrated into the front end operations of a retail store,  it will not be successful.

Before any major retailer considers using a mobile POS, I strongly recommend a front end optimization assessment to understand how all of the service solutions will work together (POS, Self-checkout, Kiosks, mobile POS, Customer Service Desk, etc) to ensure maximum customer throughput, an optimized customer experience, and a cost effective implementation.

Consider the potential benefits of a mobile POS unit:

  • Small form factor
  • Built in scanning capability
  • Print receipt to small mobile printer/ remote printer / email
  • MSR credit card swipe
  • Wifi connection
  • Battery power
  • Retail hardened (depending on the platform)
Now consider the tradeoffs of a mobile POS unit:
  • Small form factor items can be lost =security risk to network, and cost of lost units.
  • Connecting to remote devices like printers and scanners can be tricky over the long haul – but the technology is improving.
  • In Canada, NFC and EMV cards won’t work as MSR swipes are only available.  Vendors says an EMV model is in the works.
  • Accepting cash would require significant trust and could be a security and shrink risk.
  • Wireless connections can be challenging in retail and are prone to security risks.
  • Batteries need to be recharged.  It will be necessary to have a charging station where all units must be returned at end of shift or end of day.
  • Even retail hardened items can break if dropped.
  • Retail staff (and clients) who are older or who have less than optimal eyesight often are challenged to read the text on a small screen.
  • Depending on the operational implementation, there may not be a counter to set down merchandise for folding or bagging.

As with everything else, the decision to leverage a mobile POS should be driven by a the specific retail business.  Mobile POS will evolve, but in my opinion, the items above indicate potential places where  leveraging a mobile POS in a retail environment would be particularly useful.

  • Simple Order taking with no Scanning Required (QSR)
  • Small  Basket Purchases where no weighable items or security tags are used.
  • Simple large customer assistance required orders in a DIY or GM environment – (bicycles, lawn tractors, etc.)
  • High traffic timeframes – sales, grand openings, holiday periods.

Given the excitement around mobile, expect many vendors to provide solutions and many retailers to try them.  I think it’s great and it is progress.  We could very well end up with all a high percentage of mobile POS down the road, but starting from the strength of a solution and expanding from that point provides the best roadmap to success.

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.

2011.15 | Shop by Touch | Shop by Image

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

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

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

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

2011.13 | Mobile 2D Code Scanning

2D barcodes continue to enter the mainstream in North America after a much slower start than Asia and Europe.  Recent improvements in processor speed, camera availability, and software on a wide variety of smartphones means that a great swath of the population now has the capability to very easily read and use these codes.   Home Depot recently announced a wide deployment of QR codes in their stores.

2D barcodes – also known as QR (Quick Response) barcodes – come in various flavours and formats, but appear the same and are used in the same way.  Whereas the linear barcodes from stores we all know so well are composed of a series of vertical bars of black and white, 2D barcodes are generally a square with a series of squares of black and white (there are other options, however).   While traditional barcodes were scanned with a laser based barcode scanner, 2d barcodes are read with an imager – a camera.  While we discussed reading these 2D barcodes from mobile phones with a traditional POS setup in earlier posts, reading 2D barcodes with a mobile device is also an interesting prospect for retailers and other consumer facing organizations.

In order for a consumer to read these barcodes, a mobile device and software are required.  Mobile phone users can download ScanLife, NeoReader, and Microsoft Tag Reader to read these codes.  All three of them come in versions for most major mobile phone platforms including iPhone, Windows Phone, Android, Blackberry, Symbian and more.  Scanlife even offers feature phone users the capability for users to capture a code with a camera, send via MMS and receive the data link without the use of an app.  Microsoft’s app reads their own proprietary tags.

2D barcodes are appearing for consumer reading on billboards, on products, on posters, on magazine ads, in newspapers and on price tags.  They allow companies to share information such as images, demos and more via the web with consumers, and track that information as well.  The tags are also being used for reading from the phone as coupons, tickets, and payments.  Check out many real world implementations at Roger’s Blog of 2D Barcode Strategy.  I’ve seen them more and more – I have recently seen them on a poster at AMC Theatres as a link to Facebook, on a Black Eyed Peas Concert Poster, on the side of a truck advertising a business, at Pearson Airport in Toronto advertising the newly opening iStore Boutique, and many more.

While Google are attempting to usurp their place with NFC tags, it seems likely that both NFC and 2D will exist together, particularly given that NFC phones are not yet mainstream, and 2D barcodes can be shown on screens or printed with any printer, while special NFC tags carry a higher cost and are not as simply or as widely available as of yet.

2011.11 | Mobile Barcode Scanning in Store

It used to be that walking around a store with a camera would result in odd looks at the very least, and potentially an invitation to visit the parking lot.  With the ubiquity of cameras on mobile phones, every person in the store over 12 is probably toting a camera as part of their personal communication apparatus.  With the increased availability of shopping apps, there is a good chance that those people are comparison shopping or gathering information while in stores.

There is an app for that, of course.  In fact, there are a number of apps available that make it possible for consumers to scan items in stores with their mobile phone cameras to get information on products or to check prices elsewhere.  I’ve discussed these apps before, but their increasing use makes them worth another look in a bit more detail.

There are various applications for the iPhone and Android platforms.  These scanning apps have been available for a couple of years now, but with the increased processing power and improved cameras on recent phones, using the apps has become much more practical.  In their early days, the cameras, the software and the processor working together took a few tries and a few seconds to get a good scan.  10 seconds is a short time to wait in line, but starts to get old waving a brick of metal and plastic at a barcode on a book, so the speed of a successful scan makes a huge difference.  With the most recent iterations of these apps, they scan very quickly (and quietly), making the scanning option much more practical to the non-technical user.

What apps are in use?   Here are the ones on my iPhone.

RedLaser – Acquired by eBay, RedLaser is a solid product scanning app.   The app is free.  The camera on the mobile phone is pointed at the barcode of a product, and the app will search the internet via Google for pricing at online stores.  If the camera doesn’t capture for some reason, the barcode can be entered on a numeric keyboard as a backup.  The app also checks eBay for used options.  A list of the options is provided – all linked directly to the websites for online purchase.  I have used this app to scan products with mixed results.  Books, DVDs and toys work well.  Consumer products from large CPGs don’t always work.  These codes may show as Product of Kraft Foods Inc., or as a retailer specific item.  Wine has worked from time to time as well.   The challenge for Canadians is the the pricing results are often US based with no Canadian options.  RedLaser will also keep a list of products scan, usable for a future shopping list.  That list can also be emailed.  One more nifty feature is that for food products, the app will provide nutrition facts via DailyBurn.  For Canadians, this product is still mostly a novelty until Canadian price options show on the list.  Available on iOS and Android.

SnapTell – A part of A9, effectively Amazon, SnapTell uses visual scanning to identify products.  The app is free.  Simply find a CD, DVD or book, and take a photo from within the app, or select from your camera roll on the iPhone.  The picture taken of the cover will be compared with a database of product images, and has a very high match rate to products based on my scans.  Like RedLaser, the app will then provide a listing of where the item can be purchased online.  Barcodes can also be scanned or entered manually – in fact, there is a high-tech barcode scanning animation that hints that James Bond uses this thing. While the image capture has a bit more gee-whiz factor than scanning barcodes, it does require a couple of extra keystrokes to take the photo, and then press the use button, but it’s not a massive pain.  Earlier versions with iPhone 3G were painfully slow, but with iPhone 4 it’s quite snappy.  From a Canadian perspective, there is no Canadian pricing option that showed on my scans.  The app also displays useful information about movies for example, with links to Google, Youtube, IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and more.  There is a local pricing option that is set to work in the US and UK – given that these are the only two regions selectable in the app.  Available on iOS and Android.

ShopSavvy – Another barcode scanning app with similar functionality, ShopSavvy takes a slightly different angle, providing a list of deals right on the main screen.  It also has some list functionality for comparison shoppers to track what prices they see for an item at stores as well.  ShopSavvy also has a great deal of sharing functionality including the ability to share details via email, dropbox, facebook, tumblr, and twitter.  There weren’t as many online store options as RedLaser and Snaptell (no Canadian stores again), but it scanned just as well and was as easy to use.  The app is free.  Available on iOS and Android.

Pic2Shop – Another nice little scanning app that bills itself as the original barcode scanner on the app store, Pic2Shop is another nice little scanning app that can be used to shop.  Using the same scanning process as the other apps, Pic2Shop is very quick.  From a Canadian perspective, amazon.ca is the first item that shows on the list, so there is a Canadian pricing option!  Pic2Shop also offers a plethora of sharing options – in fact, you can share via pretty much every social media format I’ve heard about.  Google, Bing and Yahoo search capabilities are also available.  The app is free.  Available on iOS, Android and Windows.

In case the threat of apps outside of Canada isn’t enough, there are other apps that Canadian consumers could be using include both the Amazon, and Canadian Tire apps.   Both of these apps have scanning directly within the app.  Consumers walking through bookstores can scan for pricing from Amazon by grabbing a book from shelves to price compare.  Consumers looking at any product in a store (or at home) can scan it within the Canadian Tire app, and find out pricing and availability at their closest Canadian Tire Store.

All of these apps are amazing work and do a great job of things that were unthinkable just a few years ago.  For retailers, there is a great opportunity to leverage these platforms – whether by getting on the databases that they search, or by integrating them into retailer specific apps.  It’s easy to imagine using these apps as one’s own personal price verifier – in store or otherwise.  Perhaps that  price verifier could be used to indicate interest in a subscription to a product so that one knows when a specific brand of peanut butter is on sale, or when a new shipment of lobsters is coming in.   An even simpler option that has not arisen yet – why not open a Kobo, Kindle or iBooks eReader app, and pull down a book from the shelf and scan the barcode or the cover, so that the book opens in the eReader store, and at the press of a button it downloads to the iPhone app for later reading?   This would be a huge step to pull together the mobile and store worlds.  While it sounds risky and cannabalistic, if a bookstore doesn’t do it, someone else can use these apps to build it, so the option is to approach this on ones’ own terms, or let someone else dictate those terms.

Then again, perhaps these things that I have described already exist.  There are thousands of apps in the App Store and in the Android Market.  I could have missed some.  Let me know which if I’ve missed and your experiences with them.

2010.50 | Canadian Retail iPhone Apps

Things have come a long way in Canada over the past couple years when it comes to iPhone Apps from retailers.  A recent glance through the iTunes App Store revealed a number of iPhone Apps from retailers that include Canadian content.  All of these look good, are relatively slick, and reflect their retail brands very well.

Amazon – This mobile interface to the Amazon storefront doesn’t hold any wondrous surprises though it does incorporate the capability to scan and get prices for products.  Quite common now on many iPhone apps, the scanning works quite well and allows Amazon to extend their reach into the physical world by allowing comparison shopping and nice reminders next time a user is online

bebe – The most interesting part of this catalogue type app that is so common for fashion/apparel retilers is the button right at the front that says Just In/Final Sale.  This is effectively what most fashionista types are looking for anyway, so it provides users a quick route to what they want and a reason to install the app and keep it on their device in today’s world of thousands of apps.  Strangely no photos of Kim Kardashian.

Best Buy Canada – Piggybacking on the US app, the Best Buy Canada app also directs users quickly to sale items – what most people want to check out.  The checkout process is also quite simple and consistent with the iPhone interface.  Sharing interesting deals is simple with one button access to share the deal via Facebook, Twitter or email.

Black’s Photography – Nice little app that allows users to print photos directly from their iPhone.  Prints can be picked up in an hour by choosing the closest store.  A clever use of the same back end interface used on their kiosks and on home PCs to print photos for pickup, and a great example of a true multi-channel delivery mechanism.

Canadian Tire – The usual flyer, store locator app has a terrific feature.  Users can scan products for pricing like the Amazon app.  The scanning feature not only looks up the item, but indicates if it is in stock in your current store selected.  That is a very nice touch that leverages an interface built for their web page.  Being able to indicate stock is key here, tough you have to hope the data is accurate. 

Cineplex – A very slick app, and it has to be to compete with the likes of Flixster and other movie apps that are available on the iPhone.  The app manages to show off new releases in a simple and attractive manner highlighting all of the incredible content that entertainment can provide.  It is much simpler to buy tickets than Flixster, providing more confidence since tickets are provided directly by the theatre.  The ability to obtain rewards from the Cineplex Scene Loyalty card is a nice touch as well.

Future Shop – See Best Buy Canada.

H&M – The app makes it easy to quickly get to the users’ department of choice.  Wishlists are nice in these sorts of apps, as it allows die hard followers of the brand to recall their favourites when they visit the site.  The usual sharing capabilities provide an opportunity to share favourite fashions.

Holt Renfrew – In line with their high end clientele, this app has a very high end look and feel.  Special events for a users default store are highlighted, and HR always has events of note.   Lots of videos of fashion shows and the like – not surprising given the target market.

The Home Depot Canada – Essentially a mobile interface into the website.  Having the default store set and a very fast navigation through the flyer makes a lot of sense.  Lots of how to videos are a nice touch that are a logical item for someone in a store to use.  Would love to see a scanner or a wayfinder of some sort on this app.

Ikea Canada – Ikea’s app is effectively a mobile version of their catalogue, but it is done very very well.  It retains the look and feel of a physical paper catalog with very obvious little icons on items that the user can touch for more information and pricing.  Ikea also leverages their web assets by allowing users to see if the product is in stock at their closest store.  Wisely, they word things as “Most likely in stock”.  Fair enough, given the turnover in a store.

Joe Fresh – The Loblaw fashion brand has a stylish app with a simplicity that matches their fashion ethos. Primarily a catalogue type app to show off the latest fashions available, the app makes use of a nice interactive feature that encourages users to shake their iPhone when on a piece of attire they like, and the app puts together an outfit for them.  Pricing is provided as well as a locator for nearest store.

L’Occitane – Given the cost of their high quality products, having an informational and review app is a great idea, and this one seems to follow in the shoes of Sephora.

McDonald’s Canada – A relatively simple locator app, it works quickly and well, very simply indicating 24 hour stores, and store hours of those that aren’ts.  Some information on current promotions. 

Staples.ca – Standard app that allows online purchase from staples.ca, with online shopping, store finder and flyers.  Nicely organized for business users in particular.

myStarbucks – Missing the 2d payment component of its US based cousin, this is still a nice useful little app.  The store locator shows at a glance if the store is open or closed with a little green or red sign.  The drink builder is a nice way to explore product without holding up the line.  Lots of details on products are nice too, as the stores aren’t the best place to browse and think deeply about packaged coffee.  The calorie calculator is also very useful.

There are many more retail apps available now than were even available a few months ago.  Looking at these was very encouraging.  Some of them even have enough utility to justify leaving them on one’s iPhone.  Features like scanning and product availability are an amazing feature for users shopping for deals or a specific product.   For users who are tied very closely to the brand, these apps are a great way to stay on top of their favourite brands and new products, and share those things with others.

Expect increasing functionality and tie-ins between stores and electronic interfaces on mobile devices as the need for channels blurs and interfaces into retailers become integrated across channels so fluidly that they no longer noticable.

%d bloggers like this: