Holiday Shopping Ride-Along: How Mobile Improves Large-Format Retail

Xconomy Seattle — 

Not everyone loves holiday shopping, but new mobile commerce services can make a trip to the big box retailer quicker and less painful.

With nine shopping days left before Christmas, I met up with Josh Marti, the CEO of Point Inside, which makes indoor location technology, to see how he gets the job done. Point Inside inked a deal earlier this year to provide store maps, shopping lists, and other functions in Target’s revamped mobile app, so naturally, that’s where we took our lists.

Marti, pictured at top, showed up wearing a chest-mounted GoPro camera to gather first-hand information on how the Bellevue, WA-based company’s technology performs in the wild. He had about 10 items on a shopping list assigned by his wife. We added a Duplo Lego set I was looking for. The app displayed the items on a detailed map of the Factoria Target store, one of the retailer’s 1,801 U.S. locations.

With one hand on his phone, and one on a shopping cart, Marti set out. “The point is to be like Clark Griswold on Christmas,” he says. “Land-speed record as much as we can.”

I have an aversion to shopping in general, and large-format retail in particular. While I think I have a strong sense of direction most of the time, put me inside of a big box store with its scores of aisles and the sometimes impenetrable logic of its layout, and I get turned around and frustrated right quick. I tend to avoid this kind of shopping, opting instead for the convenience of online purchases or smaller bricks-and-mortar stores that I’m familiar with or that offer a more curated experience.

So, the idea of a map that shows exactly where everything on your list is located in the vastness of a big box appeals to me.

The map of the Target store was stocked with the items Marti and I were seeking, so off we went on a beeline to the toy section at the back of the store. It told us the precise location of the Legos—midway down the aisle E9—and within minutes we had crossed off the first item on the list.

The next item, thank-you cards, was in aisle B36, which happened to be next to B6 and B7. Without the map, I would have walked in the opposite direction, ascending through the “B” aisles thinking B36 would be on the opposite end of the store from B6.

The app was similarly helpful in locating and selecting a pair of women’s slippers, a specific Rachael Ray-branded olive oil dispenser, and silver hoop earrings. If you can’t find something on your list, a tap on the app pops up a photo and description. This helped Marti quickly identify the exact brand and size bottle of cleaning solution from a shelf stocked with dozens of choices.

Found it.

Found it.

Midway through our list, we lost our bearings as we hunted for a boy’s t-shirt with a Star Wars logo. It directed us to one the “O” aisles, which turned out to be a table stacked with folded shirts, and marked with the aisle number in tiny print on the side, rather than a large overhead sign. It was difficult to find.

This is where a “my location” dot on the map would be really helpful, showing shoppers their position in the store relative to their quarry. It’s a user interface we’ve become familiar with through other mapping applications, but retailers have thus far been reluctant to offer it.

“If you’re a retailer, you’re hyper-worried about privacy,” Marti says. “But when you look at this map, nothing would help you more than to see your blue dot.”

When Point Inside tested the feature, 82 percent of people asked for it, he adds.

We ultimately found the t-shirts the old fashioned way. “Now is where I just pick my head up and look for boy’s t-shirts,” Marti says. They were essentially right in front of us, so at least the map got us close.

Knowing shoppers’ position in the store, along with the items remaining on their list, would enable the app to tell you what’s nearby and where to go next for the most efficient trip through the store. This feature definitely would have saved us time, as we backtracked a couple of times.

“That’s 2015 technology for sure because it requires iBeacons to be deployed everywhere,” Marti says, referring to low-power indoor positioning transmitters from Apple and other vendors.

Our search for boy’s t-shirts highlights a potential tradeoff for retailers investing in mobile commerce technology to help customers navigate their stores. Using the app, Marti and I were heads-down, focused on our devices. We paid less attention than we otherwise might have to in-store displays promoting sales and items that weren’t on our list.

But the app, of course, can also give shoppers similar information, and perhaps custom-tailored promotions, on their mobile phone.

On Black Friday, for example, Target put all of its door-buster deals on a map in the app. That’s key, because the heavily discounted TVs might end up in an unexpected place, such as the health and beauty section, as retailers seek out extra floor space. The app gave extreme Black Friday shoppers an edge. “They opened at 6 o’clock on Thanksgiving night, and what we saw was that there was peak usage right in the hour before the doors opened,” Marti says.

The trick will be to present the right special offers without intruding on the primary appeal, to me anyway, of the in-store shopping apps: getting your list checked off quickly and efficiently. That has an upside for retailers, too.

“The thesis, and we’ve found it to be true, is that if I can get all that done in 30 minutes and my wife doesn’t expect me home for an hour, I can go shop more, and likely buy her something, and me something, because I have the time,” Marti says.

For the record, we got nine items in 32 minutes, including checkout. Maybe not a land-speed record—and there is definitely plenty of room for improvement as mobile and physical commerce unite—but the app did take some of frustration out of this shopping trip.

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One response to “Holiday Shopping Ride-Along: How Mobile Improves Large-Format Retail”

  1. JJ says:

    Easy to create an “allow tracking” option on an app to allow navigating point to point easy. And for those who don’t want to be tracked, they can wander.