"Don't insult anyone, please," my wife warns as she nudges me through the door of Home Depot. "I come here regularly."
Do-it-yourselfers and I just don't get along. I'm sure it has something to do with my total incompetence at anything involving tools, nails, hooks, paint, saws (oh, don't get me started there), and pretty much anything that doesn't involve a remote control. Put me in an airplane hanger store filled with eager DIY-ers, and my defenses are electrified. Guys in orange aprons kibitzing over dry wall techniques and how "easy" it is to rewire your home (no, really) -- throw a switch in me somewhere. "Okay, but if anyone even mentions, 5/8-inch nails, counter-sinking, or so much as a Molly bolt - whatever the hell that is -- to me, then all bets are off," I tell her.
Ordinarily my eager DIY bride leaves me behind on these regular trips to Home Depot down the street, but my involvement this time can't be avoided. I need to pick paint colors. So she placates me. "They have a lot of those code things all over the place now. You can play with your phone most of the time," she assures me. So now I am age 10 again and my wife is handing me a toy to keep me out of her hair in the store. Here kid, play with your Nintendo, Mom has to shop.
Home Depot is in mobilization mode, to be sure. Its iOS app is exceptionally rich. While it leads with the weekly circular features and a link to the TV ad, all is forgiven once you start drilling into the tools at hand, including on-board calculators, measuring utilities, instructional videos and store inventory look-ups. If anything, the app is so feature-rich it needs the kind of customization a full-blown media app requires.
Of course, in the cavernous, metal-filled hanger that is Home Depot, you can literally watch the five bars of signal strength descend as you move from the front door to Aisle 3. My wife is already deep within the bowels of DIY hell somewhere and I am hovering near the door trying to keep a connection. But luckily, Home Depot is getting its connectivity act together, because I detect an open WiFi signal with its brand name attached. Kinda, sorta. Here is where the store clerk fun begins. My iPhone can attach to the network but none of the usual terms of service come up and my iPhone sticks with the 3G signal. My Home Depot door greeter hasn't a clue. Go ask the Services desk - where the woman behind the counter says, "I didn't even know we had a WiFi network." Sorry. I make a final try with the fellow at the paints desk who acknowledges that, yes, they have a network -- and he wishes he could make it work for himself. "I have a smartphone and an iPod, and I can't get either of them to use it," he says. Apparently that memo hasn't gone out yet.
"Are you making trouble?" My wife, who sees me talking with someone with my iPhone in hand just senses I am up to no good. "We're trying to figure out the WiFi," I assure her. She shares an apologetic look with the guy behind the paint counter, as if she just retrieved her kid from dipping his hands in a gallon of Eggshell White. She guides me away. "You can't help yourself, can you?" Hey, it's not as if I had instigated a connectivity uprising among the customers. I wonder if I could have gotten a movement going by chanting "WiFi! WiFi! WiFi!" in the power sprayer aisle.
The customers may not know what they are missing, because when the app does connect properly to some network somewhere, the experience of augmenting product with relevant information via 2D codes is getting closer to where it needs to be. Snapping an image of one of the grills on sale pops me into a product listing that lets me move in a number of directions. It tells me off the bat that there are five of them located in Aisle 5, for instance, and it even offers to find some at nearby locations. The user reviews are pulled in, as well as a scroll of product specs that are informative without being overwhelming. The next obvious stage would be to tie the product into some of the how-to materials also offered here. But the fact that the app can locate the product in my local store is a big plus, especially in a massive retail outlet like Home Depot.
There is some code confusion going on at the store shelf level, however. In some cases we get actual QR codes and in others the user is left to scan a UPC, although many people wouldn't know to do that. In some other cases there are manufacturer QR codes in the mix that are not keyed into the Home Depot system. This is an issue I had at Macy's as well; a similarly aggressive 2D coding project that could easily be hijacked in store by a cacophony of codes from different sources that led to various experiences.
Home Depot has an exemplary 2D code experience in the nursery, however. On select plants, a code will bring you to a great landing page that shows you the plant, outlines its characteristics, sun and water needs, spacing in the garden, etc. And then the page offers suggestions for companion plants. "Wow -- that is really useful," my wife says, for the first time showing some interest in what my smartphone can do in a store -- other than keep me quiet. "It actually gives you better ideas. That comes in handy." Which is a helpful observation from my beloved focus group of one. She takes notice when the mobile augmentation moves from straight information to inspiration. When it tickles her creativity, the app moves from nice-to-have to fun-to-have.
The downside of Home Depot's mostly excellent implementation of 2D codes in the garden section is that it sets a high bar elsewhere. Only a select few plants have this cool QR experience -- and it leaves you wanting to see this level of shopping augmentation implemented consistently across all products.
But we are getting there. We are starting to glimpse some of the ways in which a retail brand can use mobile to surround the shopper with relevant and even inspirational content that not only augments retail but communicates brand values. But we need a more end-to-end experience where the mobile process is promoted comprehensively, the opportunity and the content is consistent throughout the inventory, the simple technical issue of connectivity is made a part of the strategy, and the staff are fully informed and in support of the enhanced shopping experience. That is a tall order, to be sure. But so is rewiring a house.
"You can stay home next time, OK?" she snaps at me as we walk to the car.
"What did I do? I didn't insult anyone, did I?"
"You make trouble no matter what store we go to - you and that ****ing phone. You walk down store aisles aiming your phone at everything as if you are a government inspector. They are only trying to be helpful, you know."
"As am I. I am only trying to help them all get mobilized."
"In the car."
"Can we go to Border's now?"
"OK. You were relatively well-behaved this time. But they aren't too happy with you over at Border's, either, you know. I'm the one who gets the dirty looks when you show them how great the Amazon app is."