Monday Sep 09, 2013

Apple iBeacons in the Store

There is much anticipation surrounding tomorrow's Apple event.  I'm sure we'll hear about new iPhones and iOS7, and we might even hear a bit about iPads, iWatches, and AppleTV.  But I'm really waiting to hear more about iBeacons, a Bluetooth low energy solution for micro-location detection.  iBeacons are going to bring us one step closer to Minority Report marketing, for better or for worse.  Actually, the combination of iBeacons and wearable tech like the rumored iWatch or Google Glass could take us beyond contextual advertising and into useful engagement.  So why should retailers care?

Location is a key contextual clue for target marketing.  Knowing where a consumer is, especially relative to your store, helps determine when and how to target them.  This has been the approach behind geo-fencing, where consumers are sent marketing messages via their mobile phone based on crossing certain boundaries.  Go near the slopes and I'll send you information on new skis.  Go near my store and I'll entice you in with a coupon.  Go near my competitor and I'll remind you of our price-match guarantee.  You get the point.

Location is determined using several technologies leveraging mobile phones, none of which work that great indoors.  Current technology is good enough to know you're at home but not that you're in the kitchen.  An inexpensive way to better triangulate the position of a mobile phone is to strategically place a few iBeacons in a store.  These battery-operated devices are offered by several vendors.  (The image above shows an Estimote iBeacon attached to the wall.)  The iBeacons send signals that iPhones running iOS7 (and presumably other phones in the near future) receive and then calculate distance.  The iPhones themselves can also act as iBeacons, building a dynamic mesh network.

If you'll recall, the ShopKick app uses a similar concept based on sound instead of bluetooth.  In either case, this enables retailers to engage with consumers via their mobile phones based on their specific indoor location.  Consumers can receive offers based on the department in which they're standing, or based on how long they linger in one place.  If consumers can get past the creep-factor, then there's lots of utility in this approach.

So while you're reviewing the Apple announcements, pay close attention to what's said about iBeacons.  And consider how iBeacons combined with an iWatch might enhance the Passbook experience while shopping.

UPDATE: Looks like Paypal Beacon is similar.

Friday Sep 21, 2012

Slow Start For Passbook

Like many others, I pre-ordered my iPhone 5 then downloaded iOS 6 to my antiquated iPhone 4.  I decided the downgrade in mapping capabilities was worth access to Passbook, Apple's wallet of sorts that holds loyalty cards, tickets, and coupons.  To my disappointment, Passbook didn't work.  When it goes to the iTunes Store, it can't connect.  After a little research, I read that you can change the date on the iPhone to the future (I did March 2013), and then it will connect.  A list of apps that support Passbook are shown, some of which were already on my iPhone and others that required downloading.  Even when I put the date back on "automatic," things continued to work.  Not sure why.

Anyway, even once I got into iTunes and made sure I had some of the apps downloaded, it wasn't clear what the next step was (gimme a break, its Friday afternoon).  Every time I opened Passbook, it sent me to the "Apps for Passbook" page on iTunes.  I tried downloading one of the suggested apps that I didn't already have (Walgreens).  The app's icon has a "new" stripe across the icon.  I launched it and it said it had Passbook integration.

So I needed to login or signup with the loyalty program.  After figuring out what my username and password already was, it then offered to add the loyalty card to Passbook, which I accepted.  Now when I flip over to Passbook, I can see the loyalty card there.  I guess I need to go into each app to "push" cards into Passbook.

People seem to be using it.  Twenty-four hours after iOS 6 was released, Sephora had 20,000 users of Passbook. Starbucks says they'll be integrated to Passbook by the end of the month, and Target is already offering coupons via Passbook.  After a few more retailers get on board, Apple may not need to consider NFC.

Wednesday Sep 12, 2012

No NFC for the iPhone, and here's why

I, like many others in the retail industry, was hoping the iPhone 5 would include an NFC chip that enabled a mobile wallet.  In previous postings I've discussed the possible business case and the foreshadowing of Passbook, but it wasn't meant to be.  A few weeks ago I was considering all the rumors, and it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn't in Apple's best interest to support an NFC chip.  Yes they have patents in this area, but perhaps they are more defensive than indicating new development.

Steve Jobs wanted to always win, but more importantly he didn't want others to win at his expense.  It drove him nuts that Windows was more successful than MacOS, and clearly he was bothered by Samsung and other handset manufacturers copying the iPhone.  But he was most angry at Google for their stewardship of Android.

If the iPhone 5 had an NFC chip, who would benefit most?  Google Wallet is far and away the leader in NFC-based payments via mobile phones in the US.  Even without Steve at the helm, Apple isn't going to do anything to help Google.  Plus Apple doesn't like to do things in an open way -- then they lose control.  For example, you don't see iPhones with expandable memory, replaceable batteries, or USB connectors.  Adding a standards-based NFC chip just isn't in their nature.

So I don't think Apple is holding back on the NFC chip for the 5S or 6.  It just isn't going to happen unless they can figure out how to prevent others from benefiting from it.

All the other handset manufacturers will use NFC as a differentiator, which may be enough to keep Google and Isis afloat, and of course Square and PayPal aren't betting on NFC anyway.  This isn't the end of alternative payments, its just a major speed bump.

Thursday Nov 10, 2011

Transparent Technology from Amazon

Amazon has been making some interesting moves again, this time in the augmented humanity area.  Augmented humanity is about helping humans overcome their shortcomings using technology.  Putting a powerful smartphone in your pocket helps you in many ways like navigating streets, communicating with far off friends, and accessing information.  But the interface for smartphones is somewhat limiting and unnatural, so companies have been looking for ways to make the technology more transparent and therefore easier to use.

When Apple helped us drop the stylus, we took a giant leap forward in simplicity.  Using touchscreens with intuitive gestures was part of the iPhone's original appeal.  People don't want to know that technology is there -- they just want the benefits.  So what's the next leap beyond the touchscreen to make smartphones even easier to use?

Two natural ways we interact with the world around us is by using sight and voice.  Google and Apple have been using both in their mobile platforms for limited uses cases.  Nobody actually wants to type a text message, so why not just speak it?  Any if you want more information about a book, why not just snap a picture of the cover?  That's much more accurate than trying to key the title and/or author.

So what's Amazon been doing?  First, Amazon released a new iPhone app called Flow that allows iPhone users to see information about products in context.  Yes, its an augmented reality app that uses the phone's camera to view products, and overlays data about the products on the screen.  For the most part it requires the barcode to be visible to correctly identify the product, but I believe it can also recognize certain logos as well.  Download the app and try it out but don't expect perfection.  Its good enough to demonstrate the concept, but its far from accurate enough.  (MobileBeat did a pretty good review.)  Extrapolate to the future and we might just have a heads-up display in our eyeglasses.

The second interesting area is voice response, for which Siri is getting lots of attention.  Amazon may have purchased a voice recognition company called Yap, although the deal is not confirmed.  But it would make perfect sense, especially with the Kindle Fire in Amazon's lineup.

I believe over the next 3-5 years the way in which we interact with smartphones will mature, and they will become more transparent yet more important to our daily lives.  This will, of course, impact the way we shop, making information more readily accessible than it already is.  Amazon seems to be positioning itself to be at the forefront of this trend, so we should be watching them carefully.

Monday Oct 31, 2011

Self-Checkout at Apple Stores

Back in mid-2010 Apple launched their own iOS application to support their stores, but it was overshadowed by the release of the iPhone 4.  I finally downloaded the app, and it appears to be well-done (no surprise there).  Users can get detailed information about stores and products, and even buy some products via the app.  The app locates the nearest store where you can reserve products, make a genius bar appointment, arrange for training, or see the event schedule.

Now MacRumors is claiming the next version of the app will allow self-checkout in stores for items on the floor.  This makes lots of sense since the high-value items aren't stocked on the floor anyway.  If you'd like an iPad, you still need to talk to an associate, but if your just looking for a case or adapter, then grab one and check yourself out.

Now for the interesting part: self-checkout uses your iTunes account for payment.  I have been predicting that Apple will someday enter the payment field, and this seems like the start.  In theory, Apple could extend the ability to purchase items outside Apple using the iTunes account.  That might be particularly valuable once Apple adds an NFC chip to the iPhone.  Some big hurdles to overcome but still on the path.

Tuesday Oct 25, 2011

Shopping with Siri

Regardless of how sexy Apple and Google make smartphone user interfaces, they will always be limited by their screen size.  That is until you consider some of  the other capabilities of the smartphone, such as image and voice recognition.  Last year Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, announced our entry into the age of augmented humanity and the recent release of of the iPhone 4S has been an incredible example.

Using the Google app on my iPhone 4 (yeah, I'm not looking to upgrade yet), I can search using voice recognition.  For example, when I say "ASICS running shoes" a search is performed which renders lots of results, including where I can buy those shoes nearby.  And that brings up an important concept: the search is contextually aware.  It knew my location and was able to infer "nearby" in my request.

Amazon's Price Check app lets you search for product information by scanning the UPC, snapping a picture, or by saying the product using your iPhone.  Again, saying "ASICS running shoes" returned lots of matching products, albeit without any context.  How easy is that?

So not being one to be left behind, Apple bought a start-up (a spin-off from the Stanford Research Institute) called Siri and the rest is history the future. While Siri is not general purpose, I don't think the day when we have easy access to Watson and Wolfram Alpha is far off.

So what does this mean for retailers?  In the not-too-distant future you can expect to see shoppers asking their phones "is there a better price nearby?" and "what will this blouse look like on me?" and "is this compatible with the camera I bought last year?"  Product information will continue to be easier to access, be of better quality, and be personalized and contextual.  Here are three things retailers must do in order to remain competitive:

1. Make sure you are a trusted provider of information to your customers.  Share pricing, promotions, reviews, origin, content/ingredients, recalls, compatibility, etc. with your customers.  They are going to get this information anyway, so it might as well come from you.

2. You can't win on price anymore.  With perfect access to information, it will be too easy to find the lowest price for any particular item.  Its better to differentiate on convenience, service, and exclusivity.  (And its no accident that's Apple's model.)

3. Get serious about loyalty.  The younger generations are less concerned about privacy and more interested in relevancy.  Every interaction is a chance to provide personalized service.

In this age of augmented humanity, embrace Siri and don't be a HAL.

Friday Jul 15, 2011

Oracle News on the iPhone

If you're interested in keeping up with Oracle news while on the go, download the free Oracle iPhone app.  From there you can receive news, event listings, access to blogs, investor information, press releases, etc.  Once you've downloaded and launched it, side-scroll to the "Apps" tab to see a list of all the Oracle iPhone apps.  There's a mini-app at the top called "Retail" that will give you direct access to all retail news.

The retail mini app provides access to retail-specific news, this blog, videos, twitter feed, and the ability to scan QRCodes, which is helpful at Oracle Retail events.

Tuesday May 04, 2010

Going Inside the Store

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News and ideas about the retail industry with a focus on customers, innovation, trends and emerging technologies.

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