Every technology has its breakthrough year in which it travels from the experimental stage to the mainstream. This year could be just such a year for several important technologies that hold out some tantalising possibilities for retailers and shoppers alike.
One of them is the impending conquest by digital cartography of a domain that has eluded it for some time – the inside of buildings, including the retail store, the shopping mall and any building whose interior is challenging for people to navigate.
This news should really resonate coming straight after the peak shopping season, when everyone has just been reminded of the frustration of having mapping technology that makes finding stores in the car dead easy, yet gives up on them as soon as they step inside.
The bigger the store the bigger frustration. Supermarkets, department stores, home improvement, sporting goods, office supplies and toy stores are particularly challenging environments for many shoppers, made all the more so by the borderline hopelessness of ever finding a sales associate who can or will help.
So the opportunity to have a tool that makes all that frustration ancient history is almost too good to be true. Yet despite the fact that GPS technology is so much a part of everyday life that it's taken for granted, technical obstacles have slowed its progress towards indoor use.
Now, under one app pilot occurring in the US using technology from a mobile software company called Meridian, shoppers are guided turn-by-turn around Macy's 15,000 square metre flagship department store in New York. Indoor smartphone mapping technologies are also being road-tested in other environments, including museums, hospitals and even Sydney Airport.
But for retailers there is more to it than just helping shoppers find their way around the store.
Shoppers are first asked if they want to use the location tool on their smartphone. Once they have agreed, they are then invited to accept “push” marketing promotions as they progress through the store. If the shopper opts in the retailer can alert the shopper to special offers as they move through the store. And the offers themselves can be location-dependent so that they are directly relevant to the shopper's actual position in the store.
The hope is that retailers will be able to use the shopper movement data to help them improve product adjacencies and store layouts.
Technical issues are still not completely solved and the potential for the technology to be distrusted and abandoned if shoppers are not given accurate navigational information is real. In this respect there will likely be less difficulty implementing in-store mapping at a one-off store or across a very small chain, since there are likely to be fewer challenges keeping information up-to-date than at a retail chain with a large store fleet.
One of the interesting things about this technology is that it conflicts with the long-held retailer goal of keeping shoppers for longer in the store. Thus, the retailer risks losing some of the potential for impulse buys associated with traditional customer browsing. But the hope is to make up for that with the push marketing offers and the loyalty engendered by a superior shopping experience.
The opportunity to have a tool that makes all that frustration ancient history is almost too good to be true.
Doctors might welcome the new technology too. Think of all those extra injuries suffered as people collide with each other while they traverse stores with their eyes glued to their phones.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at email@example.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.