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.

2011.31 | Shopping from your Car

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

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

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

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

Consider a drive home from work a few years hence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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