On the Hot Seat: Nebraska Furniture Mart

Nebraska Furniture Mart is renowned for many things: It's one of the largest family-operated retailers in the nation, has a famous supporter in investor Warren Buffet and operates enormous locations. The locations—two 450,000 sq. ft. stores in Omaha and Kansas City, Kansas, a 20,000 sq. ft. location in Des Moines, Iowa and another 450,000 sq. ft. store set to open in Dallas in 2015—present more than a few challenges. And iBeacons are offering solutions.

FierceMobileRetail spoke with Nebraska Furniture Mart's Robyn Messerly, software development manager, and Gavin Koehler, senior mobile applications developer, to see how a 76-year-old retailer is leveraging this very modern mobile technology.

FierceMobileRetail: What spurred Nebraska Furniture Mart to explore iBeacon technology?

Gavin Koehler

Gavin Koehler: We have a very dynamic environment. For marketing reasons, products move around the stores; every morning our team moves things from endcaps or moves furniture around, creating a different look and feel for our stores every day. We wanted a way for customers to find things even if they had seen it there before.

All our products have price tags that track the product, so we would have to write, print out a new price tag and walk around replacing them. It's just all part of one integrated system. That same system tracks where these products are, so as our team moves items around the store, the price tag obviously gets moved with it, and our system knows where that product is moved without any manual entry. So we got in touch with Meridian, which was eventually bought by Aruba, because they have expert solutions for indoor mapping on mobile devices. A lot of the companies they work with have great apps which allow users to navigate their way through a store or through any indoor environment. We figured out we could combine it with our electronic price tag system to give users turn-by-turn directions directly to any product in the store.

They have a very new beacon technology that makes it even better because now, not only do we know what products are in-store, but the user can tell where they are in the store by looking at the phone. We'll triangulate a user's position in the store just like GPS would in your car on the street. GPS doesn't work indoors very well, so this beacon technology really makes it work just like a user would expect.

Robyn Messerly

Robyn Messerly: It's clearly such a great fit with this technology and the footprint of our stores. When you enter a store that's almost a million square retail feet of space, it's not always clear where you're going to find the exact product you're looking for, so it seems very relevant to our customers. We have a lot of great in-store signage, but again, when the stores are that big, this will just enhance the experience.

Gavin Koehler: We also hope that customers can plan their trip while they're still at home. They'll know exactly where to go in the store to find what they want before they even leave their house.

FierceMobileRetail: There's always a fear from retailers that you'll lose the impulse sale by providing a more targeted shopping experience. Did you have that?

Gavin Koehler: We think it'll save customers time overall and we're invested in the long-term customer experience: 98 percent of our customers come back, so we're with them for the long haul.

FierceMobileRetail: Was there any pushback within your organization in terms of adopting this? Often, we hear from retailers in the digital or the mobile department within a larger enterprise that there are silos and problems with getting technology adoption pushed through.

Gavin Koehler: Not at all. We haven't really seen any drawback to implementing this technology. There's no interference with our existing WiFi network, it's outside of the spectrum that we already use. And it's a very easy deployment with these beacons, so we haven't encountered any pushback with support on this.

FierceMobileRetail: What about from the customer? What's the learning curve?  

Gavin Koehler: We're still testing the app, it's not deployed to the public yet. But among the people we've shown how to use it, it seems to be very intuitive. It's exactly what users would expect from an indoor mapping application because it's similar to what Google Maps offers.

FierceMobileRetail: How are you testing it?

Gavin Koehler: We're deploying to employee devices and our own test devices, and using the app to look at products and following the directions that the app is giving us to those products in the store. We've deployed the beacons in our office environment and that has multiple levels. We can navigate through the cubicles just like a customer will navigate through the aisles in the real store.

We've integrated the Meridian SDK into our app.

FierceMobileRetail: Tell me a little bit about your app, how long you've had it, and what are some of the unique features?

Gavin Koehler: It's brand new, we've been working on it for about six months. It's not deployed yet, but it uses all the features of the website and this new mapping feature, all in one easy-to-use app. There are some things you just can't do with a mobile website that we needed a native app to do. It has a bar code scanner, so a customer can be in the store and scan the bar code, which is part of the electronic price tag, and the app will take them immediately to that product on a website which will show a lot more information than the user might see at the store.

There are product reviews on our website, so as soon as the user scans the product in-store, they can see all the reviews we have.

FierceMobileRetail: How did you decide what to include feature-wise in the app?

Gavin Koehler: We talked with the marketing team and the head of marketing and the head of IT, and decided on a feature set that we could build in a certain amount of time, and we started working on those features.

Robyn Messerly: I think what we zeroed in on is what our customers most use on our full site, and what they've requested from a mobile app. Things like viewing our current ads, maps of the store, product details and product reviews.

Gavin Koehler: And we're being very careful about the app, we're not marketing it as a full-featured store app. We're calling it a wayfinder app because its main feature is navigating you around the store. There are a lot of features on the mobile website. Our website lets you shop online. Our app will still let you do that through the embedded mobile website, but we're not making that a marquee feature of the app.

Those features really come from the embedded mobile website, and a native app experience is really what people are looking for when they download an app, so we don't want to make an app where all the user sees is the mobile website. That wouldn't be a very good app. We wanted to make some great native features, and the wayfinding and the bar code scanning are great native features.

FierceMobileRetail: Has anything surprised you as you've gone through this testing phase? Things you thought would work but didn't, or vice versa?

Gavin Koehler: It surprised us how well these beacons work. Apple built in this beacon technology in the iPhone, and Aruba makes these awesome beacons that are just super-easy to deploy, and we can stick them anywhere and easily configure them as we deploy them. So that surprised me, how easy it was to build this whole thing. The rest of the app did not take long to build at all, as far as, you know, the electronic price tag locating feature, drawing that product location on the map, only took about five hours to build.

FierceMobileRetail: Are you planning to utilize other features specific to beacons?

Robyn Messerly: We have discussed some of those additional features, but it's not part of the initial release. The general manager for the e-commerce site is beginning to have focus groups to start talking about what kind of push notifications and direct marketing we want to do through the app. We know we're going to get there, I'm not sure when.