My In-Store Mobile Assistant Needs A Reboot

“It works fine when I do it,” my wife protests as we go through the second epic fail of the new in-store mobile companion system at our local Giant grocery store.

I have been waiting for years for this to happen. Finally, my wife is in the position of insisting that a new mobile technology really will make my life easier. Her idea of mastering the universal TV remote is throwing it angrily at me to use. Two months after getting my hand-me-down iPhone, she mentioned offhandedly that she doesn't get my messages because she still hasn't set up voice mail. But here she is tutoring me on how to use the portable hand scanner at the local Giant.

“It is really easy and pretty cool.”

I keep looking at her, waiting for the irony of it all to set in. It never does. Satisfaction denied.

The system works for her ((usually) because she is using the dedicated handheld device any loyalty cardholder can grab at the front door. She waves her Giant card in front of a scanner and one of the scanner guns on a wall of units lights up for her to take. It is keyed into her loyalty account so it applies rewards points and discounts as we go.



I say that it works most of the time because the first time she brought me shopping with her to show off the new technological find she had made, it failed to connect.

“No, really -- it worked every other time I used it,” she insists. “It works when you aren't here.”

This is getting too delicious. “Of course it did, my dear. And you should know because you are all about the gadgets.”

Again. Irony? No sale.

This is a self-checkout system, so the idea is to scan each item as you go. To Giant's credit, they are making the technology worthwhile to those who try it. What my wife likes about the system is that it spares her the chore of emptying the cart or her eco-friendly handbag at the checkout. It keeps a running total of how much she is spending. And the portable hand scanner is location-aware within the store, so that it pops up contextually relevant deals as she goes down the relevant aisle. It essentially virtualizes and contextualizes the weekly circular -- pushing the right offer to you as you physically approach it in the store. This is precisely the in-store mobile-assisted experience we have been promised.  

And it pretty much works to add demonstrable value to the shopping experience.

Except when it doesn't. The experience is more complicated and failure-prone when it moves onto my smartphone. First, the experience is not embedded into the standard Giant app I already have, but requires a separate download of the “Scan-It” app from tech partner Catalina. The app-based approach requires that you use the in-store WiFi. I understand that this helps ensure better connectivity than relying on a cellular signal in the depths of a store. But it removes the contextual awareness that geo-locates you among the aisles to feed you the offers. Instead, the app shows you a scroll of personalized offers when you load the app. This is fine, but a bit less magical.

Overall, the scanning experience with the app works well -- except it has a bit more lag than the dedicated scanner. You can delete things from your cart with a simple swipe. We did find that there is a risk of accidental shoplifting. The Scan-It behavior is so new that it is too easy to forget to scan when you drop something into the bag. Having to keep the phone or scanner at hand is also a little cumbersome. It is not really a net gain because the scan is just being relocated from checkout to aisle, not eliminated. My wife, on the other hand, likes it for smaller shopping tasks where the item is being scanned and bagged in the aisle all at once.  

The failure for me comes at checkout. The Scan-It system has you do a final scan of a barcode at the self checkout lane. The first time through the system required human assistance in order to “audit” me. This was supposed to make subsequent checkouts more seamless, but it didn't. On our second try with the app the handoff between the app and the in-store machine failed. The process is supposed to transfer your scanned purchases from the app to the checkout machine where you pay normally with a credit card. In our case, this attempt at a handoff left the app hanging. We burned through a couple of staffers before someone knew how to handle the problem. Whatever time or effort was saved during the shopping process was more than wasted in trying to make the technology work.

This is one of those rare instances where my wife appreciates a new mobile innovation more than I do. Other value needs to be added, such as integration with a shopping list and other conveniences already baked into many retail shopping apps. The device should be able to locate items in the store for you. And the entire system could be even more personalized so that it reminds you about items you may not have purchased for a while or learns to filter offers from previous buying patterns.

I am not convinced that this mobile-assisted checkout process is favoring the consumer over the store. And in my mind that is one of the litmus tests these retail “conveniences” need to pass. Savvy consumers understand that many of these technologies are helping to give the retailer new efficiencies, and no one is stupid enough to buy the line that those “savings” will be passed on to us in lower prices. It is incumbent on the retailer to show unambiguous net upside to our adopting new habits. The app should be serving you, rather than you serving it. 

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