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January 17, 2013

Is Mobile the Glue that Cements Brick and Mortar to the Internet?

A friend of mine who is a genius at learning languages once told me that when it comes to learning a language, “point integrators” are the best, meaning those who just grab words and phrases and start using them, much like a child would, versus the less effective “line integrators,” those who can start using new words and phrases until they understand the underlying structure of grammar and syntax – how it all fits together. In the world of learning languages, the point integrators are the geniuses and the line integrators are “challenged.”

I’m not sure which one I am, but I know in the fast-evolving world we live in, it’s necessary to sometimes do things before you fully understand how everything fits together or you risk missing the bus. Certainly the rapid evolution of mobile technologies has been a bit like that. For some, it’s obvious that there are advantages and benefits to be had, so we start grabbing what we can and using it for whatever benefit is available. But are we seeing the big picture? Do we see how mobile relates to the other aspects of the business, not just as a “new thing” but as a game changer that can and should alter the way we look at the whole picture?

Increasingly, it seems to me, mobile technologies are playing the role of bridging the gap between an enterprise’s Internet presence and its physical brick and mortar presence.

Major retailers like Wal-Mart, who just won a major award as the ‘Mobile Retailer of the Year’, are beginning to “get it.” When a Wal-Mart customer walks through the door of the store, the store knows he or she is there, in-store, by monitoring the arrival of the customers’ cellphone via its GPS. Think about what that means – in walks Tracy. The store instantly knows. It checks her account history and sees what she has previously purchased and immediately filters for specials and/or promotions that fit her buyer profile. By the time she has her cart or basket in hand, she’s received a text with a list of “check this out” specials, including which aisle to visit to find these specials. Is Wal-Mart all the way to where it wants to be with this technology? Not quite, but they’re getting there and they may well be just where they want to be very shortly because they are indeed the trendsetters and the innovators.

Although Wal-Mart will most certainly take its fair share of licks, stumbles, bumps and bruises while figuring out the best procedures for implementing mobile technology to enhance customer experience, its efforts should continue to keep the company in the top spot in the retail marketplace.

Now let’s consider what mobile can do for many other merchants. Instead of just a text message only, digital signage can be used separately or in conjunction with SMS to broadcast tailored ads to individual shoppers. Shoppers’ names could even be used as they approach the digital signage video monitor, which has a sensor in it (although that might start getting creepy, at least at first when people aren’t used to it).

We will soon see in-store interactive monitors delivering promotional messaging and even answering questions, giving directions and more. The business’ website or portions of it will be displayed on an in-store monitor while simultaneously delivering digital signage messaging and enabling online-onsite purchasing via insertion (or swipe) of a credit/debit card on the spot via the mag-stripe or smart-chip card reader that is mounted on the touch-screen monitor.

Geo-fencing can also be used to draw customers into the store. Using the Wal-Mart example again, the store could become aware of the customer’s physical presence anywhere within, say, a mile’s radius of the store, and can automatically text her news about tailored specials, in effect using that customized message to lure her into the store, even if she had not planned, on that particular day or time, to be there.

Another example – scan and go, where customers can simply scan an item with their Smartphone and bag it on the spot, reducing the checkout process to a single step of making the payment, rather than having to scan-in each item. Any item in the cart or bag that has not been scanned will trigger an alarm on the way out, so no worries on that score. Meanwhile checkout times are decreased dramatically, the number of checkout personnel required is reduced, and the customer experience is enhanced.

We can expect this service sector and the technology, commonly known as MPOS, ‘mobile point-of-sale’ to mature and morph into adding a valuable set of benefits to our daily lives. Convenience is the biggest benefit. This technology saves us valuable time by providing an easy, even a unique buying experience that enables us to quickly get on our way.

How far will this go? And how quickly?

And are these sci-fi level innovations available only to the major retailers? Or can SMB’s avail of them as well? And at what price?

These are items for discussion in upcoming articles. For now, the point is this: the dots between Internet, mobile, and brick and mortar are beginning to connect. Ain’t that grand?

Rick Berry is the president/CEO of ABC Mobile Pay, a Valencia, CA based provider of mobile POS payment technology and solutions.