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With Mobile In-Store Apps, Will Reliable Beat Sexy?

Written by Evan Schuman
July 12th, 2012

In the latest round of in-store mobile app vendor battles, the goal seems to be to capture the title of easiest to use. That’s an ideal goal, but “easy” is a word that in tech circles has a deliciously paradoxical nature. The easier and more intuitive an app is, the more sophisticated and complex is its programming. That generally means there’s a lot more that can—and will—go wrong and glitch.

From that perspective, “easiest” would be the app with the most basic functionality but that works almost always. So in the payment world, a magstripe is easier to use than NFC, even though NFC is faster and more flexible when it works perfectly.

A company called QThru, for example, is making waves with a mobile app that handles product identification and completes mobile payment through scanning an old-fashioned barcode. Its claim to fame: that the app identifies the product within two seconds even when the hand holding the phone (which is taking the picture of the barcode) and the hand holding the product with its barcode are both shaking and when the barcode is incorrectly positioned.

“You can hold the barcode upside down, sideways, at an angle and it will still pick it up,” said Phil Stafford, the vendor’s Chief Marketing Officer. “We wanted to make sure that that part of the experience was effortless.”

Demos of the product—and a customer who has been beta-testing it—support the vendor claim.

Contrast those statements with ones from IBM and Amazon, where both companies rolled out mobile augmented-reality apps. Those apps superimpose data on the screen above/next to the live image of the product. It could integrate that shopper’s CRM data, enabling even more customized information.

The data appears on the screen of the mobile device, as opposed to Google Glasses, where the data would be superimposed on the product itself (or so it would appear to the wearer). (Quick aside: Wonder if Google Glasses will be available in prescription form for shoppers who wear corrective lenses? If not, will it be the ultimate Geek look to wear Google Glasses on top of traditional glasses? Would that be the optical equivalent of a double pocket-protector?)

Let’s get back to IBM. IBM’s statement was chock full of tantalizing marketing come-ons, such as the ability to overlay same-day product discounts and social media comments from friends about that product. And the ability to quickly locate products with specific criteria, such as scanning an aisle full of products and having the app flag foods that are low-carb or electronic devices that have a battery life more than a predefined threshold.

But Big Blue’s statement glossed over how that identification would happen, merely saying “When (shoppers) point their device’s video camera at merchandise, the app will instantly recognize products.” Instantly? Really? How will that identification happen? Will it truly be able to—consistently and accurately—scan a whole aisle of products, identify those products that meet predetermined criteria, do lookups and superimpose the data—all before that tube of toothpaste has moved out of the screen view?

In talking with reporters, IBMers have vaguely said that shapes and colors will identify the products. What is the app looking for? The product label? The container? What happens when the label or container changes? How close does the shot have to be? How much of the product needs to be in the screen view and for how long? What do retailers have to do when any product needs to be added into the database or changed?

Getting back to the definition of easy, this was the most intriguing comment from IBM. John Kennedy, an IBM corporate marketing VP, was quoted in AdAge saying that he “believes the augmented-reality app may be better received by shoppers than QR Codes or barcode scanning because it’s relatively effortless, involving simply holding up a device while walking the aisles or look at products, similar to ‘something we do every day. The information is embedded on the product itself, so it’s more like a natural behavior,’ he said.”


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