Last week, the team behind the retail platform PowaTAG invited me to speak at its public launch. (You can learn all about the technology in this brief video.) Available today for iPhone and Android devices and coming soon for Windows Phone and Nokia X, the PowaTAG app works by looking or listening for proprietary video or audio tags that, when found, enable a user to instantly buy the tagged product. For example, you might find yourself watching a commercial for an upcoming DVD release and see PowaTAG’s logo on the screen. That would be your cue to open up the app, which would hear the commercial and then instantly take you to a website to buy the movie. I’ve tried it, and it’s that easy.
PowaTAG also promises to embrace in-store mobile technologies that are designed to make it easier for customers to find exactly what they want. For example, let’s imagine you received a mobile coupon for 25 percent off men’s apparel at your favorite store. If it had the right technology, that shop could send your phone a signal that would help guide you directly to the discounted merchandise.
All this new tech promises to give brick and mortar stores tools to fight showrooming and offer customers more targeted deals, all while collecting data that would send market researchers into states of delirium. The information these mobile-powered stores and consumers emit would enable companies to know, for example, which clothing racks get the most shoppers to stop and browse, the average time that elapses between arriving at a display and leaving, and even how much of a discount the average customer would need to get her to buy.
This is retailing on performance-enhancing drugs, but with none of the public backlash.
Eager to try it myself, I ventured to my nearest Apple Store on Sunday. That’s because Apple is using a form of this technology that the company calls iBeacon. It operates off a Bluetooth signal, so if your phone had Bluetooth turned on, the relevant retailer’s mobile app running, and if the store in question had iBeacon, you might receive a discount offer, product information, or an in-store map, for example. Apple reportedly had outfitted its own stores with iBeacon, and since I’ve written several posts about how mobile stands to empower traditional retail, I was very eager to try it myself.
If everything I’ve written here has you a bit confused, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I asked the first Apple Store employee who approached me today to tell me about iBeacon, and he had no idea what I was talking about, either.
Turns out that not only had he never heard of iBeacon; this particular Apple Store location does not have iBeacon running.
I have to admit that stumping Apple’s geniuses was fun. I proudly displayed my bright yellow Nokia Lumia 1020 upon exiting the Apple Store and decided to do a bit of old fashioned shopping. I wanted to see how much mobile innovation had seeped its way into stores since the last time I stepped inside one, which, thanks to Amazon, I realized had been several months.
Would any retailer invite me to take out my smartphone? For over a year, I’ve been envisioning a mobile-perfected shopping experience, one in which I would utter my wish list to an app and have my phone guide me right to what I want. Perhaps it would give me a coupon or an intelligent recommendation based on similar shoppers’ profiles along the way, and if the store didn’t have what I wanted in stock, maybe it would even take me to its website so I could order it online.
Unfortunately, shopping in all the stores I visited felt a lot like it always has, at least for me. Not a single mobile-friendly moment: no free WiFi, no invitation to follow a store on Twitter, no suggestions that I download an app.
Long ago, I perfected the art of casual wander-browsing, which allows me to size up the merchandise while signaling to sales associates that I’m likely a waste of their time. I executed that strategy to a tee on Sunday, managing to avoid all contact except for a couple of hellos.
The challenge us wanderers face in these analog stores, though, is that unless we know exactly what we want and where in the store they are, we could be wandering for a long time. And so it was with me as I meandered aimlessly. The longer it took, the more I felt tempted to wave the white flag and get help. Fortunately, I found what I wanted and got out.
A mobile-meets-store experience would have put a permanent end to my strategy.
Several years ago, I remember working on an in-store display to promote a video game. We installed one in our office because it was fun to show guests. It turned out to be the only one I ever saw in the flesh because every store I visited had decided not to set it up. That’s one of the many challenges of retail. If the store manager doesn’t like something corporate provides for the floor or doesn’t know how it works or where it should go, it probably will remain in its box.
I have no doubt that the shopping experience will improve someday soon as a result of some really useful and customer-friendly technology that exists today. If you happened to see me looking lost in the cosmetics department, you’d know that we’re just not there quite yet.