ID’ing Customers Should Be Easy—If Only Mobile Carriers Can Get It Together, Says JCPenney CIO

Written by Frank Hayes
April 21st, 2011

Spotting loyalty-program customers when they walk into a store should be easy. It isn’t. Not all of your best customers will check in, or have an app running, or keep Wi-Fi turned on so you can spot them electronically. The only thing you can be sure of is that they’ll almost certainly have a mobile phone turned on, and that should be a sure way of knowing they’ve arrived. Unfortunately, that depends on mobile carriers—which, ironically, seem to be the last ones figuring out mobile commerce.

Case in point: JCPenney. “If we could figure out our rewards customers, it’d be a big win,” said CIO Ed Robben. “How do I detect that customer coming into the store, recognize her, get her the offer that’s meant for her, because I know she’s in love with Ambrielle or she’s in love with Worthington or you know what, she’s coming in just for the Sephora experience and I need to get her to cross-shop over into the women’s department.”

JCPenney Special Report: In his first interview, the CIO also discusses RFID strategy that sidesteps POS completely and a kiosk approach that all but forgot about in-store.

“If I want to be more personalized, I’ve got to know you’re there,” Robben said. “You’re either checking in with us as you come in, or we’re sensing you as you come into a store and are able to react to that. Most everybody’s going to have GSM and 3G turned on. They may not have their Wi-Fi turned on. I just don’t know that that’s reliable enough for where we’d want to detect the customer.”

Using geolocation from third parties like Foursquare and Yelp to spot the best customers is an idea Robben likes, but that depends on the customers taking an active role. So does Wi-Fi. GPS doesn’t have enough precision to place a customer inside a store, and it often doesn’t work inside malls anyway.

That leaves mobile carriers. “In that case, we’re depending on the carriers to tell us that they’re close,” Robben said. “We’ve talked to them about that. We’d have to figure out what the right economic model is to get after that information.”

In other words, the real challenge in getting mobile carriers to help out with spotting incoming loyalty customers is the same problem the carriers face with their ISIS coalition: They haven’t worked out how they can make money from it. Until they do, retailers like JCPenney will have to keep trying to leverage check-ins, Wi-Fi and other less-reliable approaches.

But maybe mobile carriers are making this too hard. There’s a way for the carriers to kick-start their relationship with retailers and make money three different ways. That’s by putting mini-cell towers inside stores—lots of stores. Not just inside malls, but inside individual stores.


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