Guess Google Wallet: Great GUI, Hardly Any Customers

Mobile wallets face a time-honored Catch-22: because very few stores support the technology, consumers have very little reason to bother getting it. And with few consumers bothering to get it, there's very little reason for more stores to support it. Exactly how barren is this dial-tone desert for Google Wallet, currently the only actively being trialed game in mobile town?

We have our early clues from the CIO of the $2.5-billion 481-store Guess chain, one of the first test sites for Google Wallet in "a couple of stores" in California since May. In total, how many customers have tried Google Wallet? Says CIO Michael Relich: "Five or six." Not 500 or 600 customers, mind you. Five or six. "There's simply nobody on the network right now," he said. "We don't know how long it will take to take hold."

That shouldn't be that surprising: Google Wallet is currently supported by only Nexus S 4G phones through Sprint.

"It's one phone, one bank," Relich said. Note: On Monday (Jan. 9), Sprint announced two more phones that it says will eventually support Google Wallet: the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the LG Viper. But Sprint wouldn't say when those phones will indeed have that support.

So let's take a look at the math. Of that group of users, how many are even aware of Google Wallet, let alone care about it? And of that subgroup, how many are going to be visiting the couple of Guess stores in California that support it? (Relich estimates that 60 percent of his customers use iPhones.) Of that smaller yet subgroup, how many are going to bother trying it at the store?

The point here is not that mobile wallet trials are doomed. Far from it. The point is that retailers have to be realistic about the initial numbers and not draw the wrong conclusions. These numbers enable retailers—albeit slowly—to test the network and expose early glitches to an extremely small audience. This is the opposite of what happens with retail E-Commerce site tweaks where even the smallest changes have to be done in front of millions of customers.

In the Guess Google Wallet situation, Google made things a lot easier by agreeing to "help fund a large portion of it." Given the strength and inevitability of mobile wallets, the Google trial will prove that "the value goes up exponentially," Relich said.

The space wasn't helped much when Apple decided to not include NFC capabilities in the iPhone 4S. But the Google Wallet application itself works impressively, Relich said: "The transactions work really slickly. It does make the transactions work really quite quickly."

(Related story: " Guess CIO On iPad Trial: "This Is The Consumerization Of IT."")

Guess is experimenting with various mobile programs. It's also working with Visa's mobile promotion program—along with Gap—where customized retail offers are texted to consumers. It's also supporting PayPal Mobile, but only online. (Home Depot is the only retailer to accept PayPal in-store.)

Relich added that he initially ran into an interesting perspective from his senior management when he first tried making the Google Wallet pitch. "I had to sell this to management. They said, 'This is great, but we want exclusivity,'" Relich said, adding that he argued to his bosses that exclusivity would be "crazy," because this idea only works if lots of retailers participate.

Now all Guess needs is to get lots of consumers to participate.