2014.22 | findbox | robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014.16 | google indoor maps

CaptureOn a recent trip to Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto, I noticed that Google Maps indicates the stores within the building directly within the online version of maps as well as within the iPhone mobile app. The functionality is enabled by the Google Indoor Maps Program.

I prefer not to install retailer or mall specific apps solely for location finding. They clutter mobile home screens with rarely used apps. It makes more sense for shoppers to get this data where it belongs and where users look – in maps – online or within a map app on their mobile.  Providing maps this way removes the barriers to getting what shoppers want – the location of the store they wish to visit.

Picture2The indoor maps work pretty well, though on the mobile it can be a bit finicky to zoom correctly to get the store name to reveal itself. Users can touch a pin to show current location in the building. For multi-level shopping centres you can also select the level via a handy popup. Check this out at The Eaton Centre in Toronto in Google Maps as an example.

This is a tremendous offering from Google for retailers. As part of the Google Indoor Map Program, the facility owners control the indoor map, which makes the most sense as it puts the ability to update the information in the hands of those who have control of what is in the building and have a vested interest in ensuring the data is accurate.

All shopping centres should upload store details as a service to their tenants. All retailers should demand this service and ensure that their stores are represented correctly.  Shoppers should demand this service from retailers and shopping centre landlords.

The biggest challenge to wayfinding solutions is keeping the data current. Wrong location data represents lost sales and shopper frustration and retailer’s real estate teams should keep a close eye on their store sites in shopping centres to ensure the data is current. Oversight is bound to vary by facility.  Google Streetview can become dated depending on the location as stores change, which they do frequently.  Updating floor plans is more easily completed and where shoppers are likely to look.

Google also ups the ante with Google Business View – the ability to show the inside of the stores, like Google Streetview for the insides of buildings.  This seems more oriented at unique individual shops versus retail chains, but may be a way for retailers to bring some traffic in to unique flagship stores or new banners or concepts.

If Google wants to take these maps to the next level as I expect they will, expect Google Now to give shoppers a list of chain stores in the mall to visit based on their email messages and receipts in Gmail. No need to download store site or mall apps. A deeper step would be to enable a Google Card to show emails from the Gmail account divided into offers and transactions so that users can consider deals or have transaction details available for returns from their most visited retail establishments, and allow users to pull up info quickly and easily and have it ready before they know they need it.

Associate facing devices in stores could also leverage the indoor maps so that store staff can assist shoppers with directions. Department stores may even wish to have various departments mapped within the store to fully direct shoppers.  Google Indoor Maps represents ‘free’ IT infrastructure for retailers that should not be overlooked.

Accurate location data makes life easier for a segment of the population who are often high value clients and this data will soon be expected by the general population.  Get those stores on the maps and share the news with shoppers!

2013.21 | june link dump

CapturePoints Electronic Street Sign – Wayfinding is always a tough solution to provide to customers at the best of times.  Retail outlets are not always simple places to navigate when searching for a particular item that could be in various sections.  These Points Electronic Street Signs are notable for their simplicity and novelty.  Type in what you are looking for and the directional signs swing around to point in the right direction with the relevant text displayed on the sign.  Would something this basic work in a big box store?  In my experience, even going in the general direction is a lot more helpful than wandering from one section to another.  Are lightbulbs near lighting or cleaning products?  If placed correctly and with aisle details maybe something like this could work!

Amazon Fresh – I’ve been watching the Amazon grocery business for some time now, and it looks like they might have their formula worked out from their efforts in the US Northwest as they are starting to roll groceries further afield.  Competing traditional grocers would do well to provide an ecommerce experience tied to their stores to avoid Amazon cutting into their business with effectively no delivery charges (via Prime), Amazon Subscribe and Save, and the ability to leverage other trips to regular clients.

CaptureMobile Gear – The mobilegear ecommerce site does an incredible job of finding a niche and a very simple and effective way to sort through product without resorting to the age-old web strategy of showing categories of lists at the side of the page.   They also have some really thoughtful offerings for their chosen segment.  I don’t need a mobile desk, but this makes me want one!

3D Printing – 3D printing is getting more and more mainstream as Amazon starts a 3D printing section on their site.  Not hard to see where this leads – Amazon providing distribution of files to print new items at home.

Capture

SmartThingsSmartThings is a kickstarter funded solution for home automation.  It includes a wireless hub that can interface to sensors (open, closed, motion, presence, temperature and more) and then to mobile devices via an app.  Ideally this solution can make home automation far more cost effective, but from a retailer perspective it could also represent a cost effective dashboard for store managers.  How about a notification to a manager’s mobile device if a freezer case dropped below a certain temperature, or that the back door that never closes quite right when someone leaves isn’t shut?  Even if the manager isn’t at the store, they could call someone to make sure the freezer is checked and repaired and that the door is secure.

2012.14 | Technology and Timing

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

2011.39 | Retail Linkdump

Robots at the Mall – Everyone loves robots, and malls in Abu Dhabi may soon be leveraging robots as service ambassadors.  The humanoid robots built by Barcelona based PAL Robotics  have touch screens built into their chests, cameras in their heads to allow them to recognize users, and wheels to allow them to drive around.  Instead of printing a map to a location in a large mall or hospital, the robots can lead you there.  Make sure you watch the video.  Very iRobot.

No Branch Banking 2.0 – While there were a few Internet only banks floating around with the first Internet bubble, one still needed a card to get cash at some point.  With our new mobile reality, Movenbank is offering a cardless banking experience based on the web and Android NFC mobile devices.

Mobile Phone Recycler ATM – While I’ve heard of kiosks to recycle old technology in the past, ecoATM now sports a camera to identify your old mobile device so you can get a quote on the spot.  via PSFK

eBay Mobile Image Search – 2d Barcodes are too unwieldly for many – or so it seems.  How about taking a picture of something you like with your mobile phone camera, and having your mobile look for that item on sale on eBay based on the image?   eBay recently announced that the eBay mobile app will have this capability in the mobile app by the end of the year.

Ikea Happy to Bed Campaign – Ikea’s recent online campaign makes use of a fancy Youtube trick, an interface to Facebook, and some input from the user to provide a very personalized shopping experience.  Make sure you watch the whole video.  You are somehow convinced to build a shopping list without knowing what was happening.

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