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The Pain Of Mobile Inside A Store. Ann Taylor’s CIO: Who Can Get A Signal Through 3 Floors of Metal, Concrete?

Written by Evan Schuman
March 13th, 2011

So much of mobile retail strategy today is based on the consumer being inside a store. That includes barcode scanning, check-in services, price comparisons and reading customer reviews. And yet getting a reliable signal inside a store—assuming the consumer does not have Wi-Fi access to that store’s LAN—is almost impossible.

The CIO at apparel chain Ann Taylor, Mike Sajor, argues that options exist, but few retailers are moving forward with them. During a StorefrontBacktalk-moderated panel on retail mobile strategies, Sajor laid out the reasons why in-store mobile is so terribly difficult for so many chains. (The Inside-The Store discussion was turned into its own podcast.)

“If you think about mobility, interesting applications tend to leverage three things: presence; authentication; and location. Presence: Are you there? Are you on the network? Are you live? Can somebody see you? Location: Where are you physically? And to what level of granularity can you see that? Authentication: Are you who you say you are?” Sajor said. “Those are the three crown jewels. You can’t do much interesting unless you have those three things locked in to some degree or another.”

He continued: “But if you think about the wide area network [WAN], what happens when you go inside a building? What have you immediately lost? If you’re not talking to the network, you certainly don’t have presence. If you’re not talking to the network effectively, you don’t have authentication. Then let’s consider location for a moment. If you’re in a GPS-assisted phone—most are—if you can’t see the GPS constellation, you don’t have good location to begin with. There are other ways to locate to some degree of granularity, but then you get down to the question of what degree of granularity do you need to enable the application that you’d like to deploy.”

The problem gets a lot worse in an urban area or anyplace [such as a mall] where lots of retailers are in a very tight space.

“For example, if I walk down the street in New York, and I’m using GPS, the best you’re going to get is maybe 30 meter radius accuracy. Maybe. If I’m down to 30 meter accuracy and I’m on 5th Avenue in New York, I’m hitting 35 retailers, maybe 40,” Sajor said. “So what good is that level of location if I’m a retailer trying to leverage that to say something about where I am so that I can do something with the client?”

Sajor added that those GPS limits “drive me to other technologies that the client may or may not be willing to adopt. Will he or she be willing to adopt Wi-Fi when she walks into the store? Probably not, unless you compel them with something interesting. Sadly, this problem is fairly widespread. If you walk into any retailer and you go far enough back into the depths of the store, you’re surrounded by walls of metal. Sometimes, three floors of metal and concrete [are] above you. You’re not going to see the WAN. You’re not going to see the GPS constellations, so you become very limited unless you compel the customer to do something differently. That proves to be a real issue. There are things that can be done, such as how carriers, retailers, mall property owners and so forth could cooperate to provide a better wireless LAN experience. But until that happens, we’re constrained.”

On the same panel was Pizza Hut CIO Baron Concors, who stressed that his chain has a very different business model compared with most retailers.

“In our business model, a large majority of our consumers never even walk into the restaurant. An even larger portion has already ordered before they come. Our strategy is purely around the ordering concept and being where our consumers’ expectations are,” Concors said. “In this area, consumer expectations are rapidly evolving. Much like we did early in the E-Commerce days, we go where the eyeballs are. You can walk into any restaurant around the world now and see a family sitting at the table and you can see where the eyeballs all are. They’re all staring at their cell phone.”


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