Macy's Hiding Black Friday In-Store GPS Test In Plain Sight

When word broke on November 8 that Macy's is testing in-store navigation technology in its Herald Square flagship store, the chain was surprisingly silent. A week later, Macy's is still saying nothing about the "indoor GPS" system, even though it has been in the chain's iPhone app since late October. Meanwhile, Macy's is promoting a Black Friday product-finding system the chain is doing with eBay.

Part of the reason for Macy's silence on in-store navigation could be that it's only in the flagship store. A more likely reason: There's only one safe way to roll out untried technology on Black Friday, and that's very, very quietly.

The in-store navigation system, which uses technology from Meridian Apps and is only installed at the Herald Square store, uses Wi-Fi triangulation to identify where the customer is on the phone's screen with a big blue dot. If the customer searches for a specific department, brand or "point of interest" (we're assuming that means restrooms), the app gives turn-by-turn directions for getting there.

None of that is really unusual—vendors have been pitching a wide range of ways to deliver indoor navigation for a while now. But it makes particularly good sense in a multi-floor traditional department store like the Macy's flagship (and that's leaving aside the fact that the store is progressively being remodeled). That floor plan is also the worst-case scenario for handling Wi-Fi-based navigation. Compared to that, a typical mall anchor store will likely be a piece of cake.

Wi-Fi-based location is also a relatively straightforward step up from current location implementations, which are typically shopping-list features that tell the customer where a particular product is by department or aisle number. Some of those, like the one Walgreens just rolled out, depend on planograms for each store. Others, like the one Walmart now offers for all its stores, just give product locations by aisle number. (Walmart is testing a version that pinpoints the product on a map, but only in one store in San Jose. In that test, the app tells the shopper exactly where within that aisle the product is supposed to be. That's hardly item-level RFID precision, but it sure beats "it's somewhere in Aisle 9B.")

Once you know where the products are, the only thing missing to re-create a turn-by-turn GPS experience (besides a celebrity voice to give directions) is identifying the customer's location. Macy's is one of the first big chains to actually put it to work.

Why, then, is Macy's clamming up about the new feature, which is specifically identified as part of the new version of the app on iTunes? That and a vendor press release scant on details are pretty much all we know about it.

True, it only works in one store, and it's Thanksgiving parade time and Black Friday, and Macy's has other chain-wide things it wants to promote. That includes the eBay-enabled Black Friday features, which include push notifications for unadvertised specials that are specific to local stores.

But Macy's clearly wants iPhone-carrying customers to try the navigation feature. Why won't it say more?But Macy's clearly wants iPhone-carrying customers to try the Herald Square navigation feature—it could have hidden the feature in its app, but it hasn't. Why won't it say more? Probably because, even without promotion, this will get a monumental stress test on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Why risk a high-profile failure?

After all, this location experiment is not a high-stakes gamble for Macy's. It's a nice feature to have, but it's technically complicated, so it's likely to fail at least here and there. You want to be able to test just the navigation feature and not marry it to something you're depending on to boost revenue, even though that's the next logical step with in-store navigation.

The right app features to promote are the less-interesting (such as shopping lists that automatically gin up department name and floor for each item) but more likely to generate Black Friday sales. That's what those eBay features do. The ideas and technology aren't new. They're low risk and high benefit.

That said, Black Friday is still a once-a-year opportunity to test Wi-Fi-based location under the worst possible conditions. Customers and associates will be hitting Wi-Fi harder than on any other day of the year. The likelihood is high for signal conflicts and other glitches that affect the location system.

And if those glitches cause problems? It probably won't matter much. Customers trying the app will be doing it as a novelty, because no one goes to a major chain on Black Friday just to try out new technology. (Well, no one who's sane—and if they're not sane, they'll fit right in with the Black Friday crowd.)

Those very nice turn-by-turn directions will probably be subject to the same problems a car's GPS suffers from. If there's a Black Friday traffic jam in Toys or Electronics, turn-by-turn may be useless. That will probably frustrate some shoppers, but they were going to be frustrated anyway. And it's not likely that Macy's will try to augment the turn-by-turn logic with real-time traffic updates for the best route through the planogram.

The location system may not even work at all under the load of a huge number of shoppers' phones, some of which may be set up to act as Wi-Fi hotspots. There are only so many Wi-Fi channels to go around, many of which overlap, and that could create interference that renders location impossible. (That's still likely to create less interference than a store full of noisy Black Friday shoppers would for a location system that uses sound-based triangulation.)

If Macy's new location system works flawlessly on Black Friday, that's nice, but it won't do much for sales—at least not this year. If it fails—OK, when it fails—that's all that fails, and Macy's and the vendor have time to figure out what went wrong.

There's also plenty of time after that to develop new features, like having the app report the pinpointed customer location back to a CRM system, so the customer can get real-time offers along with the real-time navigation.

That makes Black Friday something like the perfect testbed—as long as you keep your mouth shut about it. There'll be plenty of time to talk up your in-store answer to GPS next year.