Walgreens First To Map Every Store In A Mobile App. Now If Customers Just Knew About It

Walgreens on Tuesday (July 17) announced that it has become the first national retailer to map all of its stores in a mobile app. That would certainly be good, were it not for the fact that it's unlikely many of Walgreens' customers will ever know about this. The reason is becoming a very sad and common retail trend: a chain embracing a technology just enough to permit it into its stores, but not one iota more.

That means no signage telling customers about it, no references on the retailer's Web site (and certainly not its homepage), no marketing, no reference in E-mails to customers and no associate training so that at least they can tell customers. The mobile map app itself doesn't even have Walgreens' name, so if a customer using either an Apple or an Android smartphone—those are the two platforms supported—went searching for Walgreens, he or she wouldn't find it. The only way to download the Walgreens map app is for a shopper to happen to know to search for the vendor's name—Aisle411, in this case—and to download it. And for the unlikely consumer who does this, he or she still needs to use two apps—Walgreens' app and the planogram app—to shop at Walgreens. Even the Walgreens mobile app makes no reference to the map app.

This problem has crippled contactless payment and slowed down the acceptance of mobile wallets. If a chain is going to embrace technology, part of that decision must be to let customers know about it and to make it as easy to use as possible (which means associate training). Otherwise, the chain will invest millions into a technology—an investment that will later be declared a failure, because few customers will bother using it.

Assuming that a few Walgreens customers discover the map app, this is what they'll find: floor maps and product layouts for every Walgreens in the U.S., with a complete, integrated product list. That will enable a shopper to type in the name (Pampers diaper) or category (baby supplies) of any product Walgreens carries. The app will then place a shopping cart icon atop a pinpoint right where the product is supposed to be.

It's a very handy device for a shopper who wants to quickly find an item, especially at a Walgreens store that he or she is not familiar with.

The app, though, pretty much stops there. There's no attempt to locate the customer within the store, which eliminates any turn-by-turn directions to navigate the shopper to the product. In a Walgreens, that may not be much of an issue. But it certainly would be in a much larger footprint store, such as a Walmart or Target, and certainly at a Costco or Home Depot.

The app also doesn't integrate with Walgreens' systems, which means no inventory information. So if a customer is asking for where the extra-large band-aids are, the app will direct the shopper there, even if the store sold out of that product two weeks ago.

There is the ability to have pop-up promotions based on products searched for, but there's no history of earlier searches and certainly no shopping history CRM integration with Walgreens.In many respects, Walgreens seems to have given Aisle411 a download of all of its maps and left it at that.

That's a shame, because this type of app—with a little more Walgreens integration (starting with inventory)—could be extremely powerful.

Nathan Pettyjohn, Aisle411's CEO, said his team took 10 weeks to extract product placement data and a database of UPC information and to integrate those with mapping software. Given the limits of screen size on smartphones, Pettyjohn said design tradeoffs had to happen to keep the screens relatively free of clutter and make product locations obvious at a glance.

Full navigation, for example, had been done in other retail projects, but Aisle411 opted to not even try it with Walgreens. "The routing component became a nuisance. We got feedback that said: Why do you need to tell me to turn right on aisle 6? There was too much on the screen," Pettyjohn said.

One design issue: If the shopper integrates a lengthy shopping list, it will place pindrops for all of them, with no visual indication of which product a pindrop represents. The shopper then needs to keep clicking on various pinpoints, which causes a small window to open indicating what the product is, until the desired product is found. Alternatively, shoppers could simply follow the line of pinpoints, confident that each represents some shopping list item and figuring that they will find out which one it is once they get to the aisle.

Aside from keeping the app a secret to its customers, this more simple approach to the app—no turn-by-turn, no real-time inventory, no active CRM component—has one definite advantage: The app reliably works. With many in-store apps actually functioning and doing so consistently is often more powerful than delivering sexier features.

A Google Maps trial with Home Depot last year, for example, was very sophisticated. So much so that it sent customers within those Home Depot stores to nearby Lowe's—complete with street maps to guide them along.

From that perspective, a simple map program with every Walgreens' layout and every Walgreens' product is quite compelling. Now if any Walgreens customers could learn about it, then we'd have something.