Heightened activity and interest in mobile retail (spurred on by holiday shopping and the rapid uptake of price comparison services and apps), has paved the way for a variety of new and immersive mobile experiences that insert marketing messages and campaigns into our daily shopping routines. From mobile codes (specifically, barcodes) to mobile coupons, companies are enlarging their arsenal of capabilities to capture our attention while we shop.
However, only a handful of companies are prepared to compete where it really counts: at the point of inspiration, otherwise known as the retail shelf.
A recent presentation during last year’s Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) Forum in London by Joe Horwood, Communication Manager for GS1 MobileCom, an initiative of the GS1 aimed at making mobile commerce and product information services and applications interoperable, scalable and cost-effective, puts this into perspective.
Joe pointed out that vast majority (75 percent) of purchase decisions are made in front of the retail shelf. “So marketing has to influence that moment,” Joe said. He also offered some valuable advice to brands looking for an entry point to consumers: develop apps that enhance the experience of making and keeping a shopping list to drive engagement. GS1 research shows that over 20 percent of U.S. consumers alone would be interested in having a shopping list app from their favorite retailer.
Aisle411, a privately held company providing what is calls “mobile retail navigation” services and apps, didn’t attend the MMA event. But its ground-breaking approach to mobile retail is completely aligned with the market conditions (and opportunities) Joe outlined in his presentation.
What does Aisle 411 do?
Aisle411, which recently released its service as an iPhone app (free from the iPhone App Store), helps shoppers find what they are looking for in the store (down to the specific section of aisle) and get rewarded for it. (Think Foursquare-like check-ins meets the total value shopping experience.)
In this scenario the interaction (search query) cleverly triggers the delivery of relevant coupons and promotions aimed to help consumers save money on the purchase they are about to make. (A clear intention they signal by searching for the item in the first place.)
The process is also opt-in, allowing people to opt in right after they receive a coupon, for example. This puts people in control of their shopping experience and lays acceptable ground rules for a continued interaction between people and merchants/marketers in-store and beyond. (Think cross-sell and up-sell to related products, coupons and offers. Even better – outreach to Millennials that want to feel that brands are listening and responding with offers for their ears only.)
Where does the data come from?
Aisle411′s approach shows that crowd-sourcing delivers real results. Essentially, the company has tapped into publicly available retail store maps and global positioning system technology found on smartphones. Without retailers’ participating, Aisle411 says the service has 80 percent to 90 percent accuracy in locating products on the shelves. When retailers sign up with aisle411 and provide their floor plans, the accuracy naturally increases.
And then there’s the data that people contribute through interactions with the app itself. If a user is searching for duct tape in the hardware store and the spot in the aisle is now a special display for power tools, then people can tap the Edit Location button on the screen and input where the duct tape really is.
What are the features?
- Search: First, a word about the search IP (one of the main reasons I connected with Aisle411 for a briefing): it’s the company’s own IP and shows that there is a lot of mileage left in mobile search provided the service is intuitive and makes genuinely helpful suggestions. In practice, people search and the service also lets them map the results (in the store and using Aisle411′s interactive map), add the item found to the shopping list and share the search results with others via SMS, email, Twitter or via an update to their Facebook page.
- Offers: The service lets people know about special in-store deals (“Informational Offers”) related to purchase intent and decisions. Users are also provided access to Digital Coupons they can clip and add to their shopper loyalty card. At the checkout the cashier scans the loyalty card and credits the savings to the user in real-time. Note: This is powered by Inmar’s ONiX digital incentive network and enables brands/retailers to deliver micro-targeted mobile promotions to shoppers in near real-time. Aisle411 has also partnered with Cellfire,which is fully integrated into the aisle411 solution to deliver digital coupons onto a loyalty card.
- Reviews: Once people find what they’re after, they can scan the barcode (iPhone app only) and get product reviews served up from Amazon.com.
- Voice-enabled: Through the help of voice recognition technology powered by Nuance, Aisle411 lets users search and interact with the service using speech. (The perfect fit between mobile and voice-enabled access to services is what no doubt prompted Apple to slip and say it had recently acquired Nuance…)
Where does social fit in?
Searching, sharing and mapping. All have a social element. Specifically, people can earn virtual rewards for a check-in at a store. But they can also get rewards for “doing things” within the app (clipping offers and Digital Coupons, for example). Some of the badges unlock additional (special) offers from retailers and brands, while other “hidden” rewards are a plus to people who have earned it (by editing and correcting the store map, for example).
So what is the business model?
Charged up with a new business plan and $1.8 million raised from investors, Aisle411 is gaining traction. It has an iPhone app out now and plans for BlackBerry and Android apps in the pipeline. Aisle 411 counts deals with major chains (Supervalu’s Shop ‘n Save, for example) and is live in more than 750+ locations in the U.S.
Aisle411 has several aces in its hand that it can turn into money. It can involve marketers and monetize through brand advertising, campaigns and in-app coupon deals. It may also sell aggregate shopper behavior and analytics data (profile, not personal data) to stores.
Q: Aisle411 is social shopping on steroids in my book, but there is overlap with the copycat check-in offers out there…
A: We plan on bringing in the Foursquare APIs – you check in with Aisle 411, you also check in there. But we have found that no one is offering rewards and badges for interacting inside the app. We also do what we do very close to the point of sale. It’s more compelling than a banner ad because we can turn the interaction into more of an engaging game-like experience.
There might be a scavenger hunt within our app - and we’re talking with brands about doing that. So advertisers could brand a badge for checking in, that could be centered around Aisle 411. But the act of searching for specific products, or scanning a barcode, would let consumers earn different rewards. It becomes a much more engaging and compelling environment for a brand to touch a consumer and goes far beyond the simple search-based apps.
Q: So it’s all about turning action – interacting with the app- into engagement…
A: Yes, absolutely, that’s a great way to put it. It creates almost an addictive environment for people to come back to. Search is the utility function and it addresses a pain point, but it’s about bringing people back and keeping them coming back for more, and that is where the social and fun element comes in.
As we evolve we plan to tie this interaction together so — instead of just getting a product review on Amazon — you have the option to send the product you’ve searched for or can’t make up your mind about to 50 of your closest friends and get their feedback within a few seconds. These are on the roadmap and how we want to go further with social.
Q: How about the mobile search? It’s your IP. How does it work and what does it deliver?
A: Our search is unique because we’ve developed it based on focus group studies on how consumers want in-store search to work. We found out that consumers want quick answers. Do they want to know it’s in Aisle 5, or do they want to know it’s in Aisle 5 halfway down 4 shelves up? The answer is no to both of those. People want search results that provide landmarks in aisles. If I search for cornstarch in the grocery store, I want results that tell me the cornstarch is in the flour and baking section of Aisle 2B. That gives me a landmark to look for. It’s not too little information, it’s not too much. It’s just right.
Q: How do handle ambiguous queries? I search for cookies – but could it be cookies or cookie dough? How do you deal with that?
A: Some mobile search services will ask you: do you want cookie dough or do you want packaged cookies. But that drags the consumer into another search and — essentially — they have to tell the search engine what they want to get the right answer. It can be tedious for shoppers who just want the goods.
Our search engine will tell you the cookies are in this section of this aisle and specialty cookies are in this section of this aisle and cookie dough is in this section of this aisle. You can see 5 search results on a page and make your choice. And our users appreciate this approach – which encourages them to explore other items they find genuinely useful.
Q: What about social search here? You have embedded crowdsourcing into the results.
A: For one, we have a button in the search results that allows consumers to edit the location of the item. We created a really simple approach to the in-store experience. If you say double-sided tape was actually in Aisle 28 in the glue section instead of in Aisle 29, you just hit edit location. Then you pick from a list of sub-locations that are available on the store that we’ve pre-defined, You pick and then – when someone searches for this – the results will tell you where we think it is, but we will also will say a user reports it is in Aisle 29. This way we eliminate the risk that a user could just change out a whole store layout and mess things up.
If you help us update where items are, we appreciate that and we also reward you. So we’ll give a Special Agent 411 badge as opposed to 007 badge to make it worthwhile. We also give them the option to share that on Facebook.
Q: What about marketers? They are flocking to Facebook to insert themselves in that exchange. Is there a place for them here?
A: We are talking with brands about supporting those physical rewards. We’ve started out with virtual rewards and tapped into social networks. And then we’re going to allow brands to connect with customer segments and say, if the consumer is the owner of a type of badge, that they qualify for some special deals or incentives from a particular brand.
Q: Where’s the money for Aisle411?
A: One is the consumer product brand, two is the retailer offer and three is from the business intelligence industry. We’re talking with brands about programs that we plan to launch in 2011 that give them the ability to market to a consumer based upon what’s being searched for or what’s on their shopping list.
For retailers where we start to generate some revenue is when that retailer participates in what we call a certified retailer package. It means that they are also marketing within our system, but then they’re also getting access to the shopper analytics and business intelligence metrics. It’s obviously not personal, identifiable information, but it aggregates around what people have on their shopping lists, what they’re looking for, and what time of day they shop.
In our application you can tie your loyalty rewards card to your account. Because they get a better sense of not only what people are purchasing, it’s easier for retailers to provide a more personalized product suggestion or offer.
Granted there are a number of copycat check-in offers out there (Shopkick and Checkpoints come to mind.) But this isn’t about offering people rewards for shopping; this is about helping people find what they want while laying the groundwork for ongoing shopper engagement.
I first noticed Aisle411 because I liked the mobile search IP. But the real attraction is how the company harnesses mobile search to power a variety of deeper (sticky) interactions. From mapping results to making a list, the individual is interacting with the app. More importantly, people are volunteering personal information (through opt-in) that opens the door for marketers to connect the dots in search queries and interactions to make people offers they can hardly refuse (coupons related to expressed purchase intent, for example).
Social is a big part of this – as it should be. The badges however reward actions beyond check-ins, potentially encouraging what retailers and brands want most: interaction and engagement. Interestingly, observations such as this recent analysis by Sidney Eve Matrix (based on a piece in the NYT) tells us that people might not want to share their purchases with everyone via Facebook — but they do want to ping their closest friends using text. Aisle411 offers this option. Smart move.
Aisle411′s model takes check-ins to the next level, enabling companies (media buyers and brands) access to contextualized intelligence around people at the precise moment they are signaling purchase intent (via a query to find the item they want to buy). I will continue to watch Aisle411 with great interest. But it’s not about a single company, app or service. It’s about monitoring the exciting models that connect mobile, location, navigation, search and social to transform retail, CRM and our experiences at the point of inspiration.