The World Of Retail Mobile Is Quickly Evolving—Without Retail

A grocery butcher in a noisy kitchen is in the messy middle of slicing some filet mignons for the dinner rush. As he slices away, he uses his mobile phone to alert his counterpart in the front of the store that he's already processed 49 steaks. Given that it's too noisy to use voice recognition—and his hands are too busy and bloody to use the keypad—he counts out the steaks and sends the message using head and elbow gestures.

This scenario isn't entirely science-fiction, although this particular mobile technology is in its earliest stages. An Israeli vendor called EyeSight Mobile Technologies announced last week (September 7) a set of what it calls Hand Gesture Interface packages, initially designed to control a phone's MPS player. What's important about EyeSight's effort is that it marks a critical new phase for mobile, where developers start trying to get creative with this descendant of Ma Bell. That's what mobile needs to truly take off in retail.

Another example: A wonderful mobile app from a company called Shazam. This app recognizes music—whether overheard at the mall or played in a movie, on a TV show or on the radio—and identifies it in a few seconds, based on only hearing a tiny snippet of the song.

Or consider several nuggets from an Apple Patent application made public last month, where Apple spoke of using the iPhone to identify a user's location—when GPS and tower triangulation aren't available—by analyzing photos and video of the surrounding landscape. "The photographs can be analyzed to detect distinguishing landmarks such as mountain ranges, constellations, street signs, stores or any other suitable landmark" and then databases are used to match that information to a specific location. (The CIA did something similar when trying to track Bin Laden by studying the background mountains from his early videos.)

That Apple application also spoke of using the phone's microphone to listen and analyze a user's heartbeat and even to measure vibrations to determine how the person is moving (via train, plane, running, etc.).

How does this type of technology relate to retail? As long as chains continue to treat mobile devices as telephones or miniature laptop computers, IT's imagination about how to leverage them will be sharply limited. But as outside forces start to show more creative uses, retailers will have cover to experiment.

Today, most retail mobile experiments are haltingly ordinary. London-based Tesco, the third-largest grocery chain in the world, on Thursday (Sept. 9) said it would be joining the world of retailers offering an iPhone app. We're being inundated every week with statements from various retailers proudly proclaiming their first-ever iPhone app. Since when is being a tech laggard a point of braggadocio? Why highlight that it's your first? What if Honda next week announced a new car, proclaiming that it's the first time Honda has included airbags? Why trumpet slowness?

Other new mobile supporters this month include Wells-Fargo and Jones New York. Wells-Fargo has joined a contactless trial already under way from Visa, Bank of America, U.S. Bancorp and Verizon; Jones New York on September 8 said it is going to use Microsoft Tag to let mobile consumers access much more information about its products; and Macys, which had already confirmed its trial with ShopKick, announcing Tuesday (Sept. 14) that the trial would be happening "at about 150 stores in the New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago markets."

What else may push retailers? Advertisers, frighteningly enough. ABI Research is now predicting that mobile advertisers will spend $1.8 billion solely on campaigns leveraging a consumer's location and they'll do this by 2015. Although that money won't directly influence retailers, those ad dollars will fund a lot of manufacturer and tech vendor efforts. Once the capabilities are fine-tuned, it won't be long before the Sears, Wal-Marts and Home Depots of the world take advantage.

Bottom line: Mobile retail is real, but it's very quickly going to morph into something that will act incredibly differently when compared to the mobile functionality we see today. It's hard to plan for a constantly evolving technology. However, this is a time that retail IT execs cannot afford to take a backseat and wait for others to shape mobile.

Given the chance, they will do so, but the result will not be fine-tuned to a retail reality. If retailers want the ultimate mobile baby to grow up and be at home in retail, retail IT needs to dig in now. As we've noted, the NRF is trying to get retailers to come together and create their own mobile vision. As a retailer, if you don't get involved now, don't complain if the future is geared to be more comfortable for P&G and AT&T than your chain.

Until then, though, toy with things like hand gestures to give instructions to a phone. Just try and avoid sneezing or shooing a fly: You may accidentally reformat your hard-drive.