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What’s in Store

Name a vertical market normally associated with Qualcomm Inc.

Chances are you didn’t say retail.

But San Diego’s biggest company is thinking hard about how it serves main streets, malls and big box stores.

Communications technology has tantalizing things to offer retail executives, company executive Bill Davidson said recently. In fact, Davidson asserts, in the retailer’s world of ultra-slim margins, technology could put the equivalent of an extra employee on the showroom floor.

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“I fundamentally believe it will be a competitive advantage,” said Davidson, who is senior vice president of investor relations, and the point man for Qualcomm’s retail technology push.

There is technology available now, he said, that can bring the best aspects of online shopping to brick-and-mortar stores.

For example, location-based technology could sniff out prospective buyers.

First things first, though. The store would need to know where the customer was. Offering a customer value — such as discounts — might be enough to convince that person to give up their location information. For customer comfort, data could also reside on the handset, under the shopper’s control, Davidson said.

Gauging Customer Interest

With customers’ consent, in-store cellular or Wi-Fi networks could track who’s on the floor. If the store knew a person kept returning to a particular big-screen television, and lingered in that spot five minutes each time, the system would sense the customer’s interest. What happens next would be up to the store. The technology could alert a sales associate, or sweeten the deal by delivering a discount offer to the customer’s smartphone.

Businesses could work to locate customers out on the roads, too.

What if, Davidson asked, you arrived in the parking lot of the local warehouse-club retailer, and the retailer knew to send your phone a package of information — which included in-store directions to merchandise that was on special?

Directions around a large and confusing store could even be a bonus.

Traveling to a geographic area and crossing a “geofence” could trigger that email from the warehouse club.

Or what if you came within range of a favorite eatery, and the restaurant knew to put a quarter-pound burger on the grill? Again, breaking the geofence would tip off the restaurant.

One common theme with the technology, Davidson said, is that the special offer or advertising would be appropriately tailored to the customer.

That is opposed to advertising that drenches every recipient with the same offer, no matter how likely or unlikely that person is to buy. Davidson calls that tactic “firehosing.” An example, he said, is the practice of sending a coupon packet or circular to every mailbox or post-office box in town.

Davidson said he sees a day when retailers may be able to sell the big consumer-brand corporations a new sort of advertising, via smartphone, in the store aisle.

In one supermarket scenario, the buyer might be a leading bottler of pickle relish. The time may be a lazy, three-day weekend during the summer. Just what’s for sale? The chance to pitch a customer with a smartphone, who’s looking over a display of burger and hot dog condiments. An alert could go out faster than it takes to say, “You’ve got mail.”

Vuforia System

One more technology that Qualcomm is introducing to retail is called Vuforia. A smartphone using the Vuforia system identifies an image in its camera lens and produces a computer-generated image, laying it over what the camera sees.

Vuforia may one day be a way to navigate unfamiliar territory. For example, an English-speaker sightseeing in Japan may one day be able to hold a smartphone up to a sign and get a translation, in English, superimposed over the original Japanese characters.

It’s already being tested in the retail sector. Davidson said a popular clothing store has experimented with the technology. Executives see customers holding their phones up to a target to learn about the garment in question, flip through the range of colors available, and see whether the item they want is in stock.

Qualcomm is not the only company thinking about such possibilities.

When U.K.-based Juniper Research released its list of Top 10 wireless predictions for 2013, it forecast that retail “will embrace the in-store mobile strategy.”

Once upon a time, Davidson said, retailers didn’t take credit cards. They didn’t see the point. After all, the card company got a cut of the payment.

Over time, credit cards became a competitive advantage.

Qualcomm may one day enable a new generation of competitive advantages, Davidson said, including in-aisle checkout.

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