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Let's take a look at who is using this technology in retail.
I'm not looking at payment here, which NFC has been mired in, merely how the shopping experience can be enhanced.
I'll get a few things off my chest about what works and what doesn't. First, a super quick differentiation between the two technologies.
Near field communication (NFC) is capable of two way communication, so payment (a debit and credit) for example, or even in medicine (a tag in your skin could send vital signs to your smartphone), and it works only at short distances. NFC can be used more basically, to simply transmit set information to a phone or tablet.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) has been around for yonks, the tags only transmit information, to an RFID reader (an NFC enabled phone or tablet such as an Android can be used as a reader, but for an iPhone a separate reader is required). These tags have been traditionally used in stock control.
There's bluetooth low energy (e.g. iBeacons) in the mix, too. However, many of the uses of beacons have been for push messaging to customers.
In this piece I'm not going to be talking about geofencing which can be done with RFID, GPS or low energy bluetooth (iBeacons). I'll be focusing on active rather than passive engagement, though I'll discuss iBeacons in my conclusion (as they're rapidly taking hold in many of the same scenarios).
Right, now that's taken care of, let's dive in...
Burberry implemented the use of RFID technology in some flagship stores in September 2012.
The tags assist with stock and quality control, giving a snapshot of what's in store, while also enhancing the customer experience (as we'll see).
RFID tags in clothing activate changing room mirrors when customers try a garment. The mirrors show a video about the making of the piece and its time on the catwalk.
As you can see from the video below, it's designed to work with store tech only. To get the same experience on a customer's phone requires NFC and a card that comes with the product when purchased.
Interestingly, the sales associates will assist in deactivating the RFID tags within your purchase. But, presuming the customer assented, the tags could be left in and used to track the life of the garment, provided it was within range of a reader.
I think this is a great usage of RFID for a few reasons:
- It's high fashion, so a considered purchase, which means the customer will have more time and be more receptive to associated content.
- The mirrors are a good size for impressing with catwalk footage etc.
- The mirrors are fixed in store, so testing and optimisation can be done easily (without needing to test hundreds of consumer devices).
- The customer service in Burberry is such that not allowing customers to enable content on their own devices won't affect engagement, as there'll be a store assistant on hand.
Made.com is a pureplay but it has two UK showrooms which consumers can book an appointment to browse. Consumers use NFC technology on a tablet computer provided in the showroom to 'scan' items on show and purchase them online.
This works well, too, because:
- The showroom doesn't allow customers to buy stock there and then, merely order online. This necessitates using a connected device.
- The showroom is appointment only and customers punch in a code to enter - giving store devices out in this scenario won't result in them being stolen.
Casino is a French supermarket which has used NFC tags in front of every product on the shop shelves.
Customers touch their own phones to the tag and can view product info or add to their mobile app's basket.
This mobile app basket allows for physical checkout, the user can bag up the items as they shop then use their phone at the point of sale to pay for everything they've totted up.
In essence, it's like walking round with a handheld barcode scanner then paying on exit. This NFC solution is cheaper to implement than handheld scanners, which have been used in some supermarkets in Europe, placing the scanner into a terminal to give a sum total for checkout.
This strikes me as a very impractical use case, here's why:
- It's NFC, so it doesn't work with iPhones.
- It doesn't save any time for the customer, who still has to go to the checkout.
- It probably takes more time as the scanning of barcodes at the till is quicker than using the app on your phone for each item.
- How does the store prevent loss? Are the contents of the customer's bags checked? I didn't see mention of any weighing process involved (as takes place with self checkouts).
- Product informatiion is already on the packaging. I rarely need more.
In Q4 2013, Harvey Nichols put tablets in-store for customers to interact with products via NFC tags on shelves.
The stickered shelves would advertise what sort of content to expect, perhaps some Pinterest boards showing pieces being worn, or celebrities wearing a particular outfit, or more prosaic detail.
Customers could shop alone or with a store associate and save a 'collection' of scanned items when finished if they wished. Entering an email address would allow for this, and for Harvey Nichols to re-engage the customer with email.
Stats from CloudTags, the technology provider, showed:
- 90% of shoppers engaged in store were not previously known to the brand.
- 16% of all shoppers engaged with the experience.
- 7% self-identified via email.
- 18% took further action after receiving an email.
I think this particular implementation had its good points and its bad points.
I see this being as strong as the content used. The celebrity tie in is particularly interesting. If the technology is used to show you a lookbook of a particular piece of clothing, catwalk footage and celebrities wearing the piece, that would seem like a good incentive to engage.
The device isn't ideal. The beauty of the Burberry implementation is that the customer is unburdened. They don't have to wield a smallish tablet, the mirror does the work.
Here one might question why I would want to look at an interface and not at the merchandise. This is one fundamental problem with tablet solutions for content, rather than the functionality of commerce.
Why save items for later when they can be purchased in store? Some people may be unsure or waiting for payday, but this tech seems a convoluted way of keeping a shopping list.
Shoppers can now use their NFC-enabled smartphones in-store to download information about the retailer's products and download the Argos transactional mobile app.
Although Argos' new digital stores are impressive, I question this use of NFC. Again, it won't work with iPhones. And with in-store WiFi, the app download route is more familiar for a lot of customers and works for all smartphone users (provided retailers have apps across each ecosystem).
However, this is a cheap technology to install and it likely provides a fun interaction between the store associate and the consumer.
It's hard to see NFC sticking around. RFID will always have a place and can be used well. iBeacons looks set to take over.
This is why:
- In the long term, we want to use our personal devices and this is needed if this interaction is done at scale (and will assist in tracking the customer journey). NFC just isn't compatible. Nor is RFID, so that's a win for iBeacons.
- RFID still has a place but the store infrastructure needs to be used with the tags. The Burberry mirrors are a great example. When interactions like this are designed, the impact is more lasting.
- RFID obviously has the bonus of being great for inventory and stock reordering.
- iBeacons are taking off, being introduced across 100 stores on Regent Street in London.
- iBeacons offer a wealth of extra functionality.
How iBeacons work:
When you walk into a store you can choose to receive notifications (messages and discount offers). One can currently use this system in Apple stores to collect online orders, see what's happening in store (uses trail markers, which we will likely see used in museums) and access product reviews.
The next step is to link in payment and more personalisation to allow this technology to become the default way of engaging customers and allowing them to shop, without necessarily seeing a store associate.
So, what would you use in store?