2016.04 | department store self service

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Just a few years ago, things were bleak for Department Stores to the point where their very existence was threatened. Seven years on and there is a revival in department stores; in Canada in particular. Hudson Bay stores are much improved, and Holt RenfrewSimons and Nordstrom are all expanding in store or adding new locations in Canada. Department Stores have found new relevance through various strategies: obtaining the rights to desirable trendy brands, providing international expansion for international brands via in-store boutiques, enhancing eCommerce footprint to augment and enhance the store experience or by serving the high-end market.

All of these strategies are underpinned by customer experience; department and specialty retailers are all about a unique customer experience or they would be mass merchants. It may be that need to differentiate themselves from mass merchants is what has kept these retailers from considering self service.

Self service has been embraced by grocery and mass merchants for almost 20 years.  More and more specialty retailers are leveraging endless aisle solutions in store and off site but there have been few initiatives for in store purchases at self service. Perhaps it is time to reconsider why it hasn’t been used, and consider whether things have changed.

Definition of Service – Many years of experience with self service has seen a shift in what is considered service.  There is a perception among a percentage of the population that a “machine” does not represent good customer service. Others note that no matter how opulent your surroundings in a store, once you have the item that you want to purchase, waiting in a queue is tiresome. Providing a self service option can reduce that line in the same POS footprint by providing four points of service that can be used simultaneously where one could be used before. In the traditional POS configuration in a Department Store with 4 people in line, 3 people wait. With a self service configuration, 0 of 4 people wait.  Nobody waits, and queues are dispersed more quickly than in the traditional model. Giving time back to shoppers is definitely a service.

Pervasiveness of Technology – The new graduates joining the workforce today have never known a world without the Internet – or self service. They are accustomed to technology and constant change. These people are the growing legions of shoppers in all stores. They want to shop in their stores; not their grandparents. The option of scanning items is a natural option, and not a retailer asking them to do work on their behalf.

Labour –  While tier one department stores that sell $500 keychains are swarming with sales staff, there are still a vast number of stores across a retailer’s estate that are not staffed in that manner. Suburban malls across North American cities appear to have a far lower staffing level. Shoppers who stop at a suburban store on Monday night to buy a pair of socks will hunt for someone to take their money. Walking far afield looking for POS “island” to find it is either closed, or has a line of 4 people. Self service is an excellent tool to combat spikes and troughs in customer traffic. Department Store staff are rarely dedicated cashiers, but have a host of other responsibilities. Why not provide staff with a tool to support multiple customer at one time?

Tendering – Cash is still pervasive across North America, but its use is continues to drop.  The implementation of EMV has reduced fraud in Canada and the UK. Shoppers are all accustomed to the drill of paying with a card at a payment terminal. Chip and Pin, NFC, Apple Wallet, and Android Wallet make it increasingly easier and quicker to transact with debit and credit cards on small footprint machines. The potential success of a cash only self-checkout has never been more likely.

Design – Self-checkouts have traditionally been a rather large footprint affair with an industrial look and feel. Department Stores aspire to be bastions of fashion and design, and any technology in the store must reflect that. The ability to leverage debit/credit only devices enables a much smaller footprint, as well as a device that is much more aesthetically pleasing, and a better fit in the Department and Specialty environment.

Security Tags – Many items in Department and Specialty require hard tag removal. Store staff are really the specialists on these tags, and that’s where most of that knowledge should reside. Newer implementations of self service checkout encourage attendants to be active with shoppers, and not behind an attendant’s podium. Given the right strategies, soft and hard tags can be dealt with in a self service environment, though training of staff will be elemental to success, and a targeted mix of merchandise to be accepted at self service is well advised. Not every item is easily sold via self service.

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While many of the changes to the technology of self service point to it as a great opportunity for Department and Specialty, implementing self service requires different strategies than other retail segments like hospitality, food, mass merchandise and petro convenience. Every Department and Specialty retailer is different, but if the strengths of self service are considered in implementation, there is opportunity for success.

 Here are a few ideas to ponder:

  • Look for queues to remove
  • Look for broad fluctuations in traffic that are difficult to accommodate with staffing
  • Look for transactions with small items. These are easier for self service – bulky items are difficult
  • Look for transactions with 7 items and less; these are ideal for self service
  • Consider a small footprint option: a set of 4 Self Checkouts can be placed where 1 POS is today
  • Soft tags are easier for self service, but hard tags can be dealt with given the right attendant strategy
  • Debit and credit transactions mean no cash handling, no cash on hand for these devices, and fewer security issues
  • Consider bagging and have the right supplies to accommodate shopper purchases
  • Consider wasted areas near escalators. Those are central to traffic and could potentially support self service
  • Consider replacing POS “islands” with self service around the counter
  • Consider starting in suburban stores with less staff instead of urban stores with lots of staff
  • Consider self service as a branding opportunity on the screens and in the design of the self service pod
  • Consider using self service devices to allow customers to check in to pick up their items ordered online.
  • Consider carefully the staffing model to ensure the units have the support they need
  • Ensure that the units are serviced with helpful staff who ensure self service is an option
  • Service is about choice. What choice to shoppers have in store today?

Department stores have an opportunity to rethink their customer interactions in a way that many other specialty retailers cannot. They have the floor space, they have the opportunity for traffic, and they are trying to differentiate themselves on customer experience. With the expansion of customer interaction options, it only makes sense to consider every channel to maximize business. While self service is definitely not the right answer for all Department and Specialty shoppers and transactions, it provides a great option, and service is all about choice.

2015.01 | mashgin

CaptureA new technology from mashgin promises to simplify the cafeteria line. Clients set their food on a scan table and the system identifies all of the food items with an imaging system, looks them up in a product base, calculates the total and charges the client automatically.

From the video demonstration, mashgin’s simplicity should make it a winner with customers. The concept works fast and simply, as it would need to do in this challenging retail environment. There are a number of factors which will influence this concept’s success as a full blown product.

Price – A POS for this type of environment is relatively inexpensive and can probably be had for $1000 – much less if a simple ECR is used. If this device can be had for that price range it could certainly be a winner. If significantly more expensive, it may be tough to win over cost conscious operators.

One could argue that a cashier could be removed from the equation to drive a huge ROI, but it will require a huge leap of faith for an operator to believe that all clients can be trusted to place all items on the scanner. The fear of shrink will probably mean a longer timeline to remove a cashier.

Another potential selling point is utilizing multiple devices with one cashier overseeing them as is done with self-checkout implementations. This is a more viable argument and potentially a better use of the cashier resources.

Payments – My experience with small transactions is that the longest element is tendering, and not scanning. While that seems counter-intuitive, tendering is never completed with a simple universal system in the real world. People pay with cash, credit, debit, and mobile devices now.

It will be important to incorporate payment into the system in a simple way that keeps flow moving.  The concept solution shown assumes a mobile solution or use of a credit card with an MSR slot.  Apple Pay or NFC cards could work well here. The the MSR card reader slot should be eliminated – that will need to be updated to as EMV is adopted in the US and many international markets.  My personal preference is to use an NFC card for food service payments so I can avoid entering a PIN.  Expect US fast food organizations to embrace NFC, beacons, or other options more fully once PINs become more common and a simple swipe of a credit card is replaced by people having to enter a PIN at POS; slowing the queues.

CaptureCustomer Choice – While the system appears entirely intuitive, there’s always a subset of clients that will struggle or reject self service. Some accommodation will need to be made to serve those that don’t wish to use self service. Some customers consider fast service to be good service, while others prefer the human touch. Ultimately the customer is right. Operators will not want to eliminate any potential revenue sources and will want to support any clients that want to eat.

Fraud / Incorrect Reads – The system will require monitoring to avoid shrink. What if two bars of chocolate are set one on top of the other so that the imager sees only 1 item and charges for one? What if the organic coffee is purchased instead of regular? A cup of coffee looks like a circle of black liquid to the imager – it’s impossible to tell without asking the customer or watching them.

Operations – Even though the system works quickly how the flow works in the restaurant environment will require some significant consideration. How many units should be used? Where should they be placed? How many attendants are needed and how are they best deployed? How are exceptions like a system reading a plate incorrectly or an item missing from the image database? How should the queue be arranged for best use of space and simple flow? What if customers have coupons or vouchers or some other discount?  How are the units updated?  Where does the database reside?  Is it simple for local staff to amend and update the product base?

While its certainty not fair to expect a fully developed system from a concept video, it’s important to think through the entire transaction. This concept has much in common with other self service concepts and the issues above are common to all.  All of the issues above are certainly addressable with some thought and an operator devoted to working through the solution with mashgin. I would happily use this sort of technology and look forward to seeing a fully developed iteration in a cafeteria line in the future!

2013.29 | self-checkout redux

I read this Time magazine article on self-checkout at the beginning of the summer and found it again in my pocket reading list, and it made me stop and think about self-checkout all over again.   I’ve been involved with self-checkout on and off for over a decade now.  There have been all kinds of arguments for and against self-checkout over those years, and frankly, all arguments are conjecture and opinion.

Retailers and consumers vote with their wallets.  That’s the measure that should get the most attention.   Self-checkout has grown tremendously in usage in North America and around the world through all the time I’ve been involved, and it will continue to grow into the future.

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There were a few small arguments against self-checkout in the Time article, and those should be in the article to provide a balanced view.  I respect that need for balanced perspective, but the arguments are some I’ve heard many times before selling and implementing self-checkouts.

  • The article indicates that some retailers are removing self-checkout. The names in the article are few and a little dated, frankly, and many more retailers are adding self-checkout than are removing them in my experience.  The list of retailers offering self-checkout is getting longer, and not shorter.  If any retailer is removing self-checkout, it’s generally not a failure of the self-checkout technology, it’s more likely one of a couple of things.  Either the self-checkout has not been implemented in such a manner as to drive value to clients and the retailer, or self-checkout is just not a fit for a particular business model.   Both of these issues are very much addressable.    Every retailer and every environment is different and must be addressed as such.  In fact, while the Time article indicated that self-checkout was removed from IKEA in the US, if you walk into an IKEA stores in Canada as I do, you will generally see more self-checkout than assisted service lanes.   Unlike the early days, self-checkout now comes in many flavours and can be adjusted to suit most needs.
  • The article indicates that theft is a problem. Theft is a problem in every retail environment.  I’ve been involved in many self-checkout implementations at various retailers across Canada and in the US.  I have colleagues who implement self-checkout all over the world.  I’ve worked with people who previously worked with competitive self-checkout solutions.  We all find the same thing when we discuss this issue among ourselves.  There are a plethora of tools available from all self-checkout vendors and others to enable store staff to minimize theft.  These tools must be embraced by the store staff to ensure shrink is not an issue.  More importantly, self-checkouts require caring, well trained, customer focused staff to provide assistance to clients and provide the same sort of diligent oversight for theft and dishonesty that the regular front end of any store requires.  Why would self-checkout be any different than any other part of the store in that regard?  It isn’t.
  • The article indicates that 52% of consumers prefer to use self-checkout and that 48% “pretty much hate it”.  I didn’t see anything in the cited Cisco study summary that indicated that polled consumers “hated it”, only that 52% prefer to use self-service if given a choice.  In fact, 61% of those polled were even willing to visit a fully automated self service store.   I like those numbers.  If there was a vote in the western world, 52% would win the day for most anything.  In fact, anything we can get clients to agree to over half the time is incredible.  Why not consider how many retailers are building smartphone apps to drive business to their stores and even allow for mobile checkout.  Does anyone consider that crazy in today’s mobile obsessed society?  Only 56% of Canadians and Americans own smartphones.  Does that mean retailers are wasting their time on something only half the population can even use?  Definitely not.

If that reasoning isn’t enough, and really, these concerns are not particularly convincing for those with experience with self service, there are a few things you might not consider about self-checkout that I’ve come to understand:

  • Self-checkout takes people away from the assisted service lanes, making the line shorter for those that really prefer a checkout experience with a cashier.  If you hate self-checkout, you can’t hate the fact that the line for a cashier just got shorter.
  • Self-checkout doesn’t have to remove the personal touch.  In great implementations it can leverage it fully. Self-checkout attendants are not always the best cashiers or most ‘technical’ of the store staff.  Well trained attendants who are willing to engage with customers are generally better choices and provide a better experience for customers in the store.   They can read whether customers need help and either back away or step forward to assist as the situation requires it.  If a personal touch is a key element of the retailer’s ethos, they have every opportunity to be friendly to clients and interact with them appropriately.
  • When self-checkouts are used primarily for smaller transactions, it increases the productivity of the assisted service lanes as cashiers only scan larger orders.  Tendering is the slowest part of the transaction, so the dollars per hour in transactions handled by the assisted lane cashiers tend to increase.
  • An attendant can handle 4-6 lanes at the same time very easily.  That means that 4-6 people can start their transaction without waiting in line instead of only 1 person who doesn’t have to wait.  At a single lane, 60 second transactions would drive 90 second average wait time for 4 customers in line.  With 4 self-checkouts there is an average wait time of 0 seconds.  Does anyone really like waiting in line?
  • New smaller, space saving self-checkouts are finding a place in smaller footprint urban stores.  I’ve seen 3 checkouts easily replaced with 6 self-checkouts, and leaving the space feeling more open, as there is no space needed for a cashier to stand.  Cashier and client stand on the same side of the unit.
  • With new footprints and convertible self-checkouts, it is now possible to keep every lane in a store open for the entire time the store is open.  Why waste lanes and space that cannot be used without an attendant?  Every square foot counts.

Frankly, I don’t find a great deal of argument against self-checkout any more.  I was even surprised to come across this article stating that it was even a question.  Self-checkout is a mainstay.  It’s an assumed option by retailers and consumers alike.  In today’s omnichannel world, we can consider it the third channel after assisted service POS and eCommerce.   It was a channel in the omnichannel retail universe well before it was called that.

The Time article is correct in that self-checkout does appear to be the on-ramp for mobile self service.  Self-checkout taught all of us a different paradigm for shopping in a store. Mobile will do that again.   Just as self-checkout evolved into different modes, in store mobile apps will vary in function to suit the situation.  Contrary to the article, you may not even need to scan anything with mobile shopping.  Stay tuned.

2013.22 | hointer | spade | sustainability

CaptureHointer – Seattle based Hointer sells jeans in a not so old fashioned way.  Their concept is to remove all of the friction from an apparel shopping experience.

Customers download the Hointer App, and visit the showroom.  The showroom has one pair of each type of jeans on display.  When you see jeans you like, you scan the 2d code on the product, and you are provided with realtime inventory information on  your smartphone.  You indicate your size, and you are directed to a dressing room where the items will be waiting for you.

While I was skeptical of the product waiting in the dressing room, in the demonstration video by Geekwire, the jeans appeared down a chute almost immediately after the reporter selected them from his device.  You can then try on the jeans, and if you don’t like them, you put them down the chute in the dressing room, and the jeans come out of your shopping cart.  If you do like them, you swipe your card and pay.  Only the items you kept are on your cart.  The payment process was not shown, but I would anticipate this could even be added to the mobile if the retailer were willing to pay the card not present processing fees.

While this process may not work for every apparel format, it’s very intriguing, and you can imagine at least some elements being implemented at almost any apparel outlet.  Taking the vaguely annoyed teenager who unlocks the dressing rooms out of the equation (or at least hiding them behind a curtain) could be a plus.  Three stores are online right now.  Would love to see more of this in my local mall.

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Kate Spade – In the spirit of instant gratification, Kate Spade has set up interactive ordering screens in front of four vacant storefronts in NYC.   New Yorkers can walk up to the outdoor facing large format screen, and scroll through the new Kate Spade Saturday collection.  If they find items they wish to purchase, they have them delivered at no charge in 1 hour.  The system texts the customer and they pay with credit on delivery.

This is obviously intended to be more of a gimmick to get attention than a permanent fixture, but with a little rent and some paint, this is certainly an advertisement to which you can tie some actual results.  Why not use these storefronts as billboards and measure their effectiveness at capturing the attention of targeted demographics based on the potential for sales.  Media attention to their brand is also provided at no charge.  The article provides no indication if pranksters are sending out Kate Spade delivery men to unsuspecting fashionistas in the dead of night without their permission.

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Sustainability – European grocer Auchun now provides clients the opportunity to read their sustainability report the way such a report should be read;  electronically instead of on dead trees.

Customers can use the Auchan app to scan the barcode on their grocery receipt and an interactive report shows directly on their smartphone.  While not a giant business change, it shows Auchan’s dedication to sustainability and makes it simple to distribute the report information while getting them some free publicity at the same time.

2013.17 | cookies | kiosks | 51 co’s | eBay | purchext

Picture of Product as Tender – Weetabix in the UK recently had an offer where consumers can obtain a free Weetabix On The Go in a retail store by merely showing the cashier an image of the product.  And I thought retailers had fun with regular old coupons.  While it’s kinda fun, it seems somewhat pointless.  Effectively it’s the same as telling clients just to ask for a free sample – and that’s what will happen in stores as we all know.

Google ‘Kiosks’ – Google has announced a managed public sessions feature for chromebooks.  Google envisions this as a simple way to enable chromebooks as public internet kiosks for stores to offer customers a way to purchase things online that may not be in stock at the store or other ‘kiosk-type’ solutions.   As a retail technology professional I find these sorts of announcements interesting because it seems a bit like looking for a reason to have a feature.  It’s been possible to lock down kiosk terminals, notebooks, tablets, and even regular old pcs with kiosk mode on browsers or with special software packages for some time.  While a chromebook is a bit cheaper than a full fledged notebook, this kiosk feature seems a marginal benefit.

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51 Companies – Business Insider has an incredibly exhaustive list of 51 Retail Innovators that is a must read list for retailers. I’ve covered a number of the companies using technology for retail, but this a great list to provide some inspiration.  Some of my favourites: fab (curation), hointer (using your mobile for catalog like shopping in a store), and stylitics (track your wardrobe – think fashion only pinterest with what you have, not just what you want).

eBay Pop-up Store – eBay is apparently moving into real world retail as a part of a partnership with Kate Spade.  Unofficially, a pop-up Kate Spade store in NYC will be outfitted with a large touch screen window, presumably to allow purchases of items in the store.  eBay wish to provide a platform to assist real world retail sites to meld with the online.

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Purchext – A new Canadian app shown at Disrupt NYC 2013 provides parents the chance to remotely validate purchases of their children for release of funds to their bank account.   Interesting idea that I could see grocers considering within their own systems to ensure that family’s keep their purchases in the chain!  So much for the party run to the grocery store on dad’s card.

 

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.

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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.

2013.05 | Facebook Card | Sport Chek Lab | Traffic

facebook-card-balance-mobileFacebook Gift Card – Facebook recently announced a Facebook branded giftcard that can be used in the real world.  If you wish to gift someone at a Jamba Juice, Sephora, Target, or Olive Garden, one only has to select that recipient from your list of Facebook friends, identify them as a gift recipient and pay -much as you would do for any other gift card.  The gift recipient is mailed an actual physical Facebook branded card to use in stores like Target.  What makes this card unique and worthy of interest is the fact that the card can be reloaded with balances from multiple retailers.   Thinking about it this way, Facebook are providing another centralized payment mechanism.  That is, while in a card form now, Facebook is beginning  to act as a centralized clearing house for payments.  The Facebook card could be used as a future payment platform for online purchases, or via a mobile app like Starbucks does, or as a card as it is now.  Based on the card images it appears to be provided by some sort of partnership with Discover.  Looks like there is another potential partnership vying for space in the world’s already crowded wallet – mobile or otherwise. via psfk

skitchSport Chek Retail Lab – Looks like I’ll have to get on down to North Toronto to check out the latest in technology to get us to buy athletic equipment.  It seems that Sport Chek have put together lots of tech in a store deemed the Sport Chek Retail Lab to try it out.  I love the passion for the technology, and will definitely head over to visit.  While it sounds like it’s more of a lab scenario and therefore subject to different rules than a more traditional store, my only caution on projects like this is whether or not there is a need for all of the technology.

Things I would watch for in visiting this store:

  • is the technology really selling more merchandise than if we just put the items on a shelf in an attractive, engaging manner that is a part of the brand experience?
  • is the technology providing a truly unique customer experience?
  • is the technology assisting customers in a way that is not possible without it?
  • is the technology part of an overarching targeted customer experience, or are these just toys?
  • does the technology usage fit the retailers brand and customer demographic?

I love technology for its own sake, but not everyone does.  My experience dictates that if these technologies are to find their way into more than just a flagship or a demo store, they have to bring benefits to the retailer and the consumer.  It certainly appears that no option has been overlooked at this site!  Check out all of the tech!  I look forward to visiting and seeing the place myself!  via Artisan Complete

books_set2-1Book Recommendation: I just finished reading: Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt.

I enjoyed this book a great deal.  A few thoughts on why you might as well:

  • It will make you re-think your driving habits.  If you are like me, you’ve taken driving for granted and don’t think about it much.  You will think about it after you read the book.
  • There is so much around us that we don’t notice because we see it so much!
  • It helps to reset your perception of open mindedness.  I found the discussion of some renegade traffic planners in Europe removing street signs altogether and completely re-thinking roads and intersections to be an incredible example of how you can think completely outside of your assumptions.
  • Some fascinating ideas that are covered in the book: the rise of eating in the car – discussions of drive thrus – how we change our personality when we drive and why – how seeing eyes (real or artificial) can change your behaviour – a discussion of the psychology of queueing and how it holds true in traffic and in other areas – how we never get feedback on driving – how traffic design may not seem to be in your best interest but it is for the greater good – there is a ‘starbucks effect’ for traffic – that looking for the best parking spot at the mall is a waste of time – cars are parked 95% of the time – free parking has a high cost – comparing traffic to queuing at Disney – how rules affect behaviour like Pizza Hut in China
  • While he doesn’t cover Google’s self driving cars and their impact (the book was published in 2008), he did write about them for Wired this year.

I was surprised to see that it had so much information of relevance for my work.  I found myself in that first year university scenario where I was highlighting more of the book than not.  If you work in retail or retail technology, I guarantee there is something in this book for you! via 99 percent invisible

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.

2012.24 | Retail Robots

Robotic Store Staff – Carnegie Mellon has developed a robot for retailers to assist in validating stock outs and misplaced items in the store.  The autonomous device rolls through the store on its own and scans the shelves to validate locations of items and notify staff via iPads.  They have augmented that solution with some additional technology – a Google Streetview like view of the store showing where products are located on a large format digital sign.   The sign is augmented with product information should customers wish to view it – even trailers of DVDs on the shelves if they are interested.

This is a very ambitious undertaking and that team should be commended for their initiative.  There are a few hurdles for this team I can see with this type of solution based on my experience in retail:

  • I don’t know how the system works as far as where the robot moves in the store.  If it isn’t bumping into walls like my Roomba, or if the Kinect can’t recognize obstacles, it probably has a map of the store in memory somewhere.  Updating store layouts and planograms is a lot of work, and generally where wayfinding falls down.  I’m sure it’s relatively straightforward in one CMU bookstore that probably doesn’t change out their mugs and sweatshirts too much in any given cycle.   Try this in a specialty or apparel chain across hundreds of sites with varying floor plans and the potential to move store fixtures, and it becomes much more challenging.  There would need to be a tool to accommodate tweaks at sites to administer this to validate that the store information.  The challenge will be around local versus remote administration.  Local staff know the store layout but are probably not technical enough to update the map on the robot.  Remote staff can update the robot but won’t know the store.    Even better, let the robot figure it out autonomously – that’s the ultimate.
  • The Google Streetview kiosk layout is very interesting, but once again, stores and merchandise are constantly updated.  I’m finding Google Streetview is already getting out of date – the stores on the street have changed since the images were taken.  I don’t always trust it now.  Same goes for a store.  The product changes, the store changes.  There needs to be a constant update mechanism.  Even if the product is shown in the right place on the Streetview interface, users will think that the view is different and become confused.  It’s the updates that kill solutions like this.
  • That User Interface on the digital sign had a lot going on.  I’m sure a great deal of thought went into it, and it looked great, but it has to be so easy that my mom can use it in front of a half dozen spectators with some product under her arm.  Keep what the solution does as simple as possible.  It’s not an app on a mobile device for users with time on their hands and lots of buttons to push.
  • Finding a product is more of an art than a science.  That’s why people are preferred to machines so far.  Describing product is harder than it sounds.  Examples on product search are always something easy like a CMU mug.  When a customer comes to search for something in the store, it could be a specific brand and easy to search on.  More often, it might be that lavender shirt with the grey buttons – do you have it in size 4?  While customers will walk up to a screen with no other options, they will prefer to deal with a real person.  It’s always easier to walk up to someone and ask.  Voice activated or image based search and validation would be terrific – ideally it could ask the customer some questions to narrow down the items and then show pictures of the product to validate what the customer is looking for, and then where it is in the store.  If not available, allow online order and ship.  Another option?  Let the robot provide directions to the product. If they could walk faster, having the robot lead there would be incredible.
  • iPad notifications are useful, but without followup, it doesn’t mean anything.  The solution should ensure that staff are notified and prompted to action.  If no update is made, then there should be automatic escalations to management.  Would also be great if the solution would indicate if product that should be on the shelf is in stock in the store or not.  The system could prompt re-ordering for outages.

All technology solutions have challenges. Tying the solutions into the operations without impacting store staff’s ability to get their jobs done is what will make or break any retail technology solution.   This is a very interesting idea with lots of potential.  I hope it gets built  out and there is interest from retailers.

Restaurant Robots – A restaurant in China has opened with robotic staff.  The robots actually usher in customers, cook food and serve.  They are also anthropomorphic and candy coloured to impress the children.  Given the cost of the robots, and the fact that this is likely not an automat – but requires human intervention, I would expect that the food is relatively expensive.  Biggest unanswered question – what do you tip a robot?

Robot Model for Fit – Purchasing clothing online can be convenient, but fit is always a factor.  Sizes can vary widely by clothing brand.  For those shopping for clothing online, the practice of purchasing a couple of sizes and just returning the ones that don’t fit at no charge has become common.  While a convenience to the shopper, it is a rising overhead cost for retailers.  In an attempt to reduce returns based on fit, fits.me, an Estonian company has developed a robot which can change its shape to fit clothing, and then provide measurements across thousands of points for each garment.  When a customer enters their measurements, and selects a garment, it shows how the item would fit their body.  This could allow online shoppers to have a better idea of how clothing will look and fit on their body – ideally reducing returns.

Android Salesperson/Actress – In order to push some extra sales for Valentine’s Day, Takishimiya’s Tokyo store turned to a real android.  Last February, an eerily realistic robot sat in a display case using her android phone and passing the time.   Straddling the line between mannequin and real life model, the robot reacts to its surroundings to provide lifelike responses to those around her.   While a novelty at present, you could see a hyper-realistic android catching on as a way to fully demonstrate products – show how easy it is to move and stretch in athletic apparel perhaps.

Other Important Retail Robots to Remember:

Kiva Systems – Amazon owned Inventory Picking Robot system – link from 2009 Post .

PAL robots – Used in Abu Dhabi Mall.

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