Written by Susan Reda, Editor, Stores Magazine, April 2014

It may be April, but retailers are already in a holiday frame of mind. It’s not about decorations or Black Friday promotions — it’s about making sure their latest iterations of mobile technology are ready by the time third-quarter selling is in full gear.

Whether it’s point of sale, assisted selling or marketing, investments in mobile are a top priority; migration to mobile represents an important way to connect with consumers and can positively impact their experience. Use of geo-fences outside the store and technology like Wi-Fi tracking and beacons inside allow for better and more relevant targeting. Mobile POS and assisted-selling tools add a level of convenience and client-specific interaction. Still, getting to the point where mobile is a seamless entity in stores requires serious work in the trenches.

“Mobile supports a seamless shopping journey, but the industry is not there just yet. What retailers have done in the past three years … hasn’t provided as much value to customers or sales associates as it has the potential to,” says Jerry Rightmer, president and chief technical officer for Starmount. “Supporting the entire customer journey from research to decision to purchase is where the real value lies. If you can’t support a complete customer journey, the value of mobile degrades.”

Rightmer insists that if mobile disrupts the shopping experience and doesn’t feel natural, it won’t be widely embraced. “When a shopper goes into a physical store they’ve essentially opted into a physical experience,” he says. “The challenge is to use mobile to lift one-to-one engagement. It works best when it’s invisible, yet transforms the experience.”

Jon Stine, director of Cisco’s consulting of North American retail and consumer products practice, cautions retailers about the importance of content and the balance needed to serve a continuum of digital shoppers. “Mobile is a delivery mechanism,” he says. “What’s most critical is content — and retailers need to figure that out first. … The ultimate content shoppers want will require the right-time management of different data sources, including unstructured data.”

Make no mistake, shoppers want to use their mobile devices when shopping. “Shoppers are demanding immersive, connected experiences,” Stine says, pointing out that 18 percent of shoppers are “uber-digitals,” regularly using a smartphone during shopping decision-making — up from 11 percent in 2012 (based on the Cisco survey Digital Shopping Behavior in an Internet Everything World).

“Overall the data suggests that only 5-6 percent of the shopping public would prefer to receive personalized offers as they are moving about the store,” he says. “It also clearly suggests that they wish to receive it earlier in the decision journey — when at home, or entering the store. That suggests that the rush to location-specific couponing … may not be the best use of mobile.”

Brent Cohler, director of mobile product marketing for SAP, maintains that one of the most impactful ways for retailers to use in-store mobile involves creating more personalized in-store shopping experiences by arming employees and consumers with all the information they need as they travel through the store.

“For store associates, that means providing a mobile device and app that allows them to be more informed than the customers coming in,” he says. “For shoppers, it means making it easy to gather information, find a deal and make a purchase — all from their mobile device as they walk through the aisles.”

While discussions about the consumer perception of mobile persist, retailers are on a mission to migrate to mobile — fast. Projects that seemed game-changing just 18 months ago are already being reinvented and there are a handful of newer technologies that retailers are working to install in the near term. Regardless of where these companies are now, the plan is the same: use the next few months to iron out the kinks and be mobile-ready before satellite radio starts playing “Jingle Bells.”


Powa Technologies Group’s PowaTag made its formal debut last month. More than 240 global brands including Reebok, Carrefour, Fast Retailing and Harry & David have signed up for the technology, which combines mobile commerce and Bluetooth geo-location with watermarks, beacons and touch-to-buy capabilities.

For consumers, the PowaTag is akin to an E-ZPass for shopping: Once they download the app and sync it with a credit card, their smartphone becomes what Powa Technologies CEO Dan Wagner calls a “consumer transaction enabler.”

The PowaTag utilizes visual, audio and other smartphone-standard sensors to deliver information and process transactions with instant payment authentication. Shoppers can walk up to an actual item, a billboard, a print advertisement or a retail display and purchase the item with a few touches to their smartphones. For retailers, the technology is a way to convert impulses into direct purchases.

“A shopper could be walking past a store window, see a shoe they love, snap a photo of it and be prompted to purchase in real time,” Wagner says. “The same goes for a print advertisement… If I see [something] and think my wife would like it, I can pick up my phone, scan the watermark and purchase it in seconds. No mental notes, no ripping out the page for later — it’s done.”

With so many brands already on board, the technology is poised to achieve scale quickly. “Consumers have to download the app, but with so many brands using it they gain swift entry to a lot of product information — not just one retailer who invites them to use a mobile app,” Wagner says. “In this case we think ubiquity and utility win when it comes to mobile commerce.”

Apparently, so do investors: The company generated a record-breaking $96.7 million in its Series A investment phase.

Presence Zones

IBM’s Presence Zones technology — unveiled last fall and being piloted by several companies, including a “major nationwide department store” where a big rollout is anticipated later this year — uses intelligent location-based technology to engage shoppers in near real time.

Craig Hayman, general manager of industry cloud solutions for IBM, is convinced that when shoppers use smartphones in a store their propensity to buy is higher, but the interaction needs to be relevant.

“It’s not simply about sending a promotion to the shopper because you want her to buy,” he says. “Presence Zones blend customer analytics that uncover shopper preferences with geo-location sensors allowing the retailer to react in a customized and appropriate manner.”

If, for instance, a shopper has been in the formalwear department for 15 minutes, the retailer “might want to send an associate there to provide face-to-face service,” Hayman says. “Maybe it makes sense to push out a coupon to drive a visit to the shoe department, or perhaps some special services such as tailoring could be made available if she’s a platinum loyalty customer.”

Unlike some other mobile marketing technologies that rely on Bluetooth or beacons, Presence Zones use a retailer’s Wi-Fi network to connect with customers’ mobile devices. Shoppers must opt-in to receive messaging, and Hayman underscores that the relationship is between the customer and the retailer: IBM doesn’t receive, store or share any personal data.

“Once the shopper agrees to let the retailer interact with them, the opportunities to deliver more personalized service and reward loyalty grow exponentially,” he says. “Initially not everyone may want to connect to a retailer, but it only takes a couple of positive experiences to realize the value of exchanging information.”


Punchcard isn’t a newbie to mobile marketing, yet the most recent version of the app adds a new level of functionality and ubiquity. Location-based marketing technology from Digby allows shoppers to earn personalized rewards from retailers based on their shopping history and current location.

Shoppers start a virtual punch card for a retailer by taking a photo of their receipt with the Punchcard app. They then have the chance to play a “Spin and Win” game to earn points and free rewards. Perhaps the biggest thing that sets Punchcard apart from similar mobile shopping apps is that it can be used at more than 15 million retail units nationwide.

“It gives us a 360 [degree] view of consumer spending,” says Andy Steuer, Punchcard founder and president. “The image of the receipt captures data at the SKU level, creating a precise buying history for each shopper’s profile. That kind of accuracy allows a powerful level of personalization.”

Earlier this year Punchcard announced a partnership with SessionM, a mobile loyalty point system that rewards shoppers who make purchases at local businesses. Points earned with SessionM partners can be banked and later “traded” for gift cards, merchandise or contest entries.

“Messages vary widely from push notifications to purchase incentives or product promotions,” Steuer says. “It’s also possible for retailers to work with Punchcard to learn specifics about shoppers making purchases in a certain area. … a retailer can effectively put a fence around certain consumers and learn more about where they shop and what they buy in an effort to refine the rewards.”

Steuer guards the names of Punchcard retailers, though he did say that the quick-serve retail category is among the biggest. He notes that those merchants report a lift of 15 to 30 percent in average order value among Punchcard users.


Don Uselmann, Saks Fifth Avenue senior vice president and director of stores, describes the mobile tablet clienteling tool rolled out to sales associates in November as “the crown jewel. … It’s our job to help our clients feel good when they get dressed in the morning. This new system helps our associates connect with their clients,” he says. “They’ve become trusted advisors.”

Saks worked with Raymark to embed multiple layers of functionality in the tool; associates can easily notify clients when new items from favorite designers arrive and send a text message when an item is ready to be picked up. A merchandise locator system helps quickly find desired sizes and/or colors in another store, and associates can arrange to have it shipped directly to the shopper — even providing an indication of when FedEx plans to deliver.

Also built into the tool is a targeted marketing feature that keeps associates informed about current promotions. Uselmann points out that while shoppers are often bombarded with e-mail and may overlook a promotion, an e-mail from a sales associate with whom they’ve built a relationship is far more likely to be opened. A “closet” tool stores photos of everything a client has purchased, allowing sales associates to coordinate new items with what the customer already has.

Some 3,500 iPads equipped with the Raymark clienteling tool are being used at all Saks full-line stores; the application can also be accessed via the POS system. Uselmann says Saks and Raymark are working to adapt the tool to the iPhone.

This year Uselmann is hoping to get a better handle on the data delivered as a result of using the app. “We’re looking at frequency, the lift in spend and the impact we’re having on relationship building,” he says. “Looking ahead we foresee a point where the customer can input data into the tool, too — maybe adding photos of other items in her closet, a social agenda or a gift-giving calendar. It all revolves around building the relationship.


Another new entry on the retail mobile scene comes at the segment from an entirely different perspective. A pure software-as-a-service platform, RFSpot focuses on measuring and improving the functionality of in-store cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity to ensure that when mobile devices are being used, the experience is exceptional.

“If the Wi-Fi or cellular connections aren’t working, neither will the mobile app nor mobile marketing that retail companies are working to deliver,” says founder Andrew Gold, who cut his teeth creating public-facing Wi-Fi networks for Google.

“Too many people have had the experience of going into a store where a sign on the door invites them to download the retailer’s app via their Wi-Fi only to find out that it takes an incredibly long time — or doesn’t work at all,” he says. “The last thing retailers want is for the customer to have an unsatisfying experience, but too often they’re just not aware that these particular type of problems exist.”

RFSpot uses automated technology to digitize stores, create geo-spatial product maps, locate and count RFID-tagged inventory and provide restocking logistics and merchandise compliance analytics. RFSpot’s equipment creates a high-resolution map of the store as well as captures visual images of SKU tags and products to automate stock out detection and verify planogram compliance. In addition, RFSpot’s platform enables the retailer to manage low-power beacon networks as an opt-in service. Marketing managers can assign specific actions and content to be sent to shoppers based on their proximity to beacons in the store.

Gold says that a number of retailers are using RFSpot technology, noting that the company has won contracts with large retailers and is currently providing analytics in over 200 million square feet of retail space across the county. “Basically we’re providing the foundational data set that is needed to drive a good in-store mobile experience,” he says. “Bottom line is, you have to do the wireless assessments upfront to be sure the investments being made will succeed.”

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