“Good afternoon, Target shoppers. We need a sales associate in Aisle 12 to break up a skirmish among mobile retail apps. Referee needed in aisle 12, please. Thank you.”
is that there is a quiet war going on in the aisles of many retailers these days over who will get the mobilized shopper’s attention over smartphones at that critical point of final decision.
Never in retailing history have we seen such a potential disruptive force enter into what had been a hermetically sealed domain, the in-store experience.
Shoppers are bringing competitors with them into the store -- from Red Laser UPC scanners to Amazon and eBay apps. Retailers will soon pine for
the good old days when all they had to do was position themselves against a competitor’s print circular that a savvy shopper carried into the store.
How does a retailer address the challenge? The best defense appears to be a good offense. No store chain wants to start racing to the bottom on price. But if the merchant can craft a compelling and valuable enough mobile experience of its own for shoppers, then the app platform can become a surrogate salesman rather than a hijacker.
Arguably, the first wave of retailer apps helped a user get insight into store locations, sales and current inventory as well as product and user reviews and specs. Best Buy, Home Depot, Staples and OfficeMax have been good early leaders in this trend. But should the next step be apps that do more and actually enhance and streamline the shopping experience?
Aisle411 is an iPhone app that is building a set of shopping services from a core aisle navigation technology. The app is designed to take a shopping list or even a recipe and locate the items in a store. “We have taken in-store inventory data and floor maps and tied location intelligence to all the products in a store,” CEO Nathan Pettyjohn tells me.
You can build a shopping list online or on a phone, through typing, voice recognition (using Nuance technology) or a UPC scan. You can use the recipe database to build meals, even searching for recipes featuring certain ingredients, and then have the necessary items dumped onto your list. I found a fondue recipe in the app, which placed all the ingredients on my shopping list and then let me check in at the local Safeway. The app told me which aisle contained most of the items, let me check them off and maintain a purchase history.
Pettyjohn contends that the in-store mobile element has to be different from the Web product research functions. Simply bringing the Web into the store is not good enough. “If you look at the path to purchase in a simplified view, then online does a good job of researching and planning and getting you to the door. But once you hit the door, it is a different experience. We connect the door to the transaction. We are an engagement tool in the store to take you through the experience and to purchase decisions.”
Pettyjohn says the idea here is to offer obvious value to the shopper and at the same time get an insight into in-store behaviors that will be invaluable to marketers. Indeed, knowing that a shopper has pretzels on the list is a great opportunity for early aisle411 advertiser Coca-cola to insert a reminder to get something to drink with that. Of course you can almost taste the opportunities for conquesting customers in-store with rival items on their list with special offers.
All well and good, but there is the practical matter of getting the raw data needed to make the in-store experience consistent across enough retailers to appeal to shoppers. In my area the app recognizes a handful of nearby Lowes, Giant and Safeway stores but not the destinations I actually shop at regularly. Honestly, in terms of actual practicality for me, it is more of a clever proof of concept than a tool I can use now.
The app has a direct route for users to suggest a store for inclusion. Pettyjohn says the company receives a suggestion at the rate of one every 12 minutes, and is using consumer demand and reviews to appeal to retailers for partnerships.
Which of course raises the thornier problem of why a major retailer might want to hand its customer over to a startup to manage the in-store experience. After all, mobile platforms have now introduced so many new layers, trying to insert themselves between the merchant and their customer all with their own app: goods manufacturers, mobile coupon aggregators, product scanners, mall owners, shopping incentives apps like Shopkick, check-in social networks, etc. etc. Arguably no one any longer “owns” a customer. But mobile introduces a dizzying array of touchpoints and byways through which the consumer may get to the retail experience. Building a new app brand in the midst of this seems a steep climb.
Pettyjohn counters that aisle411 is modeling itself more after Google Maps in that its SDK will give retailers access to the system so they can build it into their own apps as well. Likewise a couponing app like Yowzaa, or an incentives app like Shopkick could also leverage the technology. “We don’t want to do rewards or coupons,” says Pettyjohn. “We want to do in-store navigation.” The company seems to feel that knowing the purchase intent on that level, so close to point-of-sale, is the place to be.
And that may be so. As a consumer I myself have not settled on which app or apps I go to before shopping, although the retail brand in my mind is still the largest magnet of my attention. I think in terms of destinations, not third-party app functionality that I can layer atop the destination. The real skirmishes will occur on my home screen over which app to choose, or in the aisles over which mobile provider gives me the best information I need at the point of decision. As various mobile enablers like aisle411 integrate with the other layers of solutions that are building a new mobilized shopping experience, the looming battle will be over who controls that priceless data.