Macy’s Hiding Black Friday In-Store GPS Test In Plain Sight

Written by Frank Hayes
November 14th, 2012

When word broke on November 8 that Macy’s is testing in-store navigation technology in its Herald Square flagship store, the chain was surprisingly silent. A week later, Macy’s is still saying nothing about the “indoor GPS” system, even though it has been in the chain’s iPhone app since late October. Meanwhile, Macy’s is promoting a Black Friday product-finding system the chain is doing with eBay.

Part of the reason for Macy’s silence on in-store navigation could be that it’s only in the flagship store. A more likely reason: There’s only one safe way to roll out untried technology on Black Friday, and that’s very, very quietly.

The in-store navigation system, which uses technology from Meridian Apps and is only installed at the Herald Square store, uses Wi-Fi triangulation to identify where the customer is on the phone’s screen with a big blue dot. If the customer searches for a specific department, brand or “point of interest” (we’re assuming that means restrooms), the app gives turn-by-turn directions for getting there.

None of that is really unusual—vendors have been pitching a wide range of ways to deliver indoor navigation for a while now. But it makes particularly good sense in a multi-floor traditional department store like the Macy’s flagship (and that’s leaving aside the fact that the store is progressively being remodeled). That floor plan is also the worst-case scenario for handling Wi-Fi-based navigation. Compared to that, a typical mall anchor store will likely be a piece of cake.

Wi-Fi-based location is also a relatively straightforward step up from current location implementations, which are typically shopping-list features that tell the customer where a particular product is by department or aisle number. Some of those, like the one Walgreens just rolled out, depend on planograms for each store. Others, like the one Walmart now offers for all its stores, just give product locations by aisle number. (Walmart is testing a version that pinpoints the product on a map, but only in one store in San Jose. In that test, the app tells the shopper exactly where within that aisle the product is supposed to be. That’s hardly item-level RFID precision, but it sure beats “it’s somewhere in Aisle 9B.”)

Once you know where the products are, the only thing missing to re-create a turn-by-turn GPS experience (besides a celebrity voice to give directions) is identifying the customer’s location. Macy’s is one of the first big chains to actually put it to work.

Why, then, is Macy’s clamming up about the new feature, which is specifically identified as part of the new version of the app on iTunes? That and a vendor press release scant on details are pretty much all we know about it.

True, it only works in one store, and it’s Thanksgiving parade time and Black Friday, and Macy’s has other chain-wide things it wants to promote. That includes the eBay-enabled Black Friday features, which include push notifications for unadvertised specials that are specific to local stores.

But Macy’s clearly wants iPhone-carrying customers to try the navigation feature. Why won’t it say more?


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