The key to making brick-and-mortar stores unified with the online world is the mobile app. As soon as a customer enters the brand’s premises, the app should be available to provide the full range of services expected for the customer and the location. This is the realm of mobile check-in technologies and there are four main approaches:
With some penetration in the West they are mainly popular in Asia. They consist of an image that is unique to the smartphone user, and which is scanned at store entrance - often at turnstiles. Once the shopper’s code is accepted, their identity is recorded and their movements tracked by an indoor positioning system, if available. AmazonGo uses this technology to check-in a customer into their AmazonGo store.
QR codes are slow and cumbersome ways of processing transactions or accessing stores and transit systems. They are easy to produce and provide both a paper based and electronic system which underpins their spread in recent times as a “check in” technology but they are prone to fraud and emulation.
NFC (Near Field Communication)
This protocol is widely used by payment devices in retail and transportation for card present transactions. It is based on two standards: one for open loop systems and another for closed loop systems. The former enable payment cards from any provider to be processed in a system and are used widely in regulated payment ecosystems such as retail. The latter only allow access to passengers with proprietary cards and are typically used in public transport systems.
The ‘open loop’ NFC standard was developed by EMVCO, official information source on the EMV® (Eurocard Mastercard VISA) specifications. It is applied in Chip&PIN and Contactless payment Point Of Sale systems. The less significant closed loop standard is MIFARE. More recently smart transit operators have opened up their systems to enable both EMVCO and MIFARE cards to be processed with no financial penalty to EMVCO card holders.
NFC is a relatively new and practical mobile check-in solution, as customers can simply tap their smartphones at store entrance. However, it does require installation of check-in equipment in-store. At this time, only the Android platform allows access to the smartphone’s NFC hardware. Apple’s iOS platform has yet to open up to external developers.
It is a generic word for describing a method of locating an object by its latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. It can be derived in a variety of ways, though most common to mobile phones is Global Positioning System (GPS) and phone tower triangulation. These are used in applications such as Google Maps and Apple Maps to locate a user.
When a retailer uses GPS coordinates to determine a customer’s proximity to a store, also called ‘geofencing’, they create a virtual fence inside which the customer is considered on or close to the premises.
The two main problems with geolocation is inaccuracy indoors and in built-up areas (due to signal reflection and attenuation), and battery drain of the user’s mobile phone. The GPS chip inside the phone performs significant amounts of calculations, called triangulation, to derive the location by the distance to each signal source.
Alternatively, geolocation can use the IP address of the wifi access point that detected the presence of the user’s phone. With third party data services, the IP address can be mapped to the area in the vicinity of the wifi access point. This method also suffers from inaccuracy, particularly if the access points cover large areas, and from the risk of out-of-date data.
These technologies aim to address the above problems in many ways depending on the required accuracy and budget. In manufacturing and healthcare, both reader-based tag systems (with signal emitting tags) and reference-point systems are used. The most common is the latter and also the most relevant to the retail industry.
Reference points are generally signal emitting devices. They may use different media, from WiFi to radio waves to smartphone sensors, with many solutions combining multiples thereof.
Today’s smartphones are sophisticated devices that have many sensors and can help locate a person, by detecting the local magnetic field (magnetometer), the orientation of the device (gyroscope), audible or ultrasonic sounds (microphone) and light (camera and ambient light sensor).
At the high end, even hybrid reader-reference devices which combine radio signals with facial recognition software are available.
How do you choose a mobile check-in solution?
For every price point, there is a range of technologies and performance. We see three main types of implementation:
Store entry/exit only
The most basic way is akin to everyone’s airline check-in experience: the passenger is identified and greeted upon arrival, and leaves the care of the airline as they exit the baggage area. Outside shopping centres, and for smaller shops, geolocation is ideally suited.
Customers can be identified when in close proximity for a welcome notification, and for the associated app to open up. Sales associates can be immediately notified of their customer’s arrival and prepped for a better shopping experience.
In shopping centres, indoor location technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons or WiFi Access Points (AP) must be used, and may be limited to a single hardware device or, for greater reliability, a small set of devices.
Tracking by area
Most common to larger facilities, the objective is to understand where customers spend most of their time. It allows for real-time heat mapping and better roster allocation, and also helps sales associates find a high-value customer, or someone who has called for assistance.
An added benefit and useful utility is in-store navigation, which consists of reference data and a floor plan to dynamically show users their location and the requested destination. With Apple’s ARkit or Google’s ARcore, the retailer’s app can also feature Augmented Reality on the smartphone’s camera view of the store, to make store navigation even easier.
Tracking by area requires an indoor mesh network of locating devices with app or cloud-based algorithms to calculate the approximate position of the customer. Retailers have often implemented a combination of technologies to increase accuracy.
Tracking by stock shelves
As the most sophisticated and costly, this vision of the future is showcased by a number of retail disruptors such as Amazon Go, JD.com and Alibaba, and provided by a number of high visibility startups such as Standard Cognition, Grabango and Zippin.
Cashierless checkout and the study of purchase behaviours are the prime motivators to streamline and optimise the retail sales process, and implicitly, financial performance. Forecast at over $38B in 2023, the ‘Smart Retail Market’ is currently a prized target among private investors.
Complexity to Simplicity
Embracing the unified commerce paradigm is not only a matter of cost, it is also, and in these early days of smart retail technology, about managing complexity. Early innovators have the first movers’ advantage but no doubt also serve as a test bed, a debugging ground and a trial of a retailer’s cost/benefit ratio.
Consumers’ comfort level with retail technologies should not be overlooked: what works for the millennial consumer may not necessarily work for the older shopper.
A safe place to start is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the most tested of all indoor positioning technologies. The announcements of industry leaders such as Apple and Paypal as far back as 2013 and the prospect of the free advertising through proximity marketing, led to hundreds of startups launching into the indoor positioning industry.
As an example, Parousya’s Automatic Check-In System (ACIS) is based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and a proprietary protocol between locating devices and smartphones to detect and record user’s entries and exits of signal regions.
This single-technology makes it a simple and low cost solution, users can be located with accuracy of as little as 1m. It is ideally suited for applications such as automated foot traffic measurement, tracking by area with automated check-in and check-outs and in-person sessions to deliver a digital user experience while sopping in-person.
Mobile check-in enables the future
The fundamental first step to unified commerce is mobile check-in technology: a location-aware service that triggers the app to become a useful and dependable resource throughout the in-store experience, while respecting users’ privacy selections.
With mobile check-in, a retailer can deliver unified commerce and attain a level of trusted advisor who, in their field of expertise...
Sales associates will be supplemented by online avatars and/or AI-powered chatbots to assist and guide customers. At any time and anywhere, a customer feels at home with the retailer.
Early adopter retailers have demonstrated that mobile check-in technology is already in use, and is ‘crossing the chasm’ to deliver on the unified commerce vision.
A retail app incorporating the Parousya ACIS SDK and cloud services is a simple and low cost solution that connects the arriving customer with the brand and local staff, respects the choice of shopping incognito or fully revealed, and ACIS meets GDPR, Australian and USA privacy regulations.
For more details about ACIS, please contact Parousya.