The Digital Frontier– Chasing the Shopper In the Wild at SXSW Interactive

The Digital Frontier– Chasing the Shopper In the Wild at SXSW Interactive

It’s a conundrum unique to retail: thinking surrounding “new media” for retail (that is in-store digital marketing) has morphed and evolved at a pace that confuses even the most seasoned brand, agency, and technology platform pros. Evolution is a good thing, right? Innovation, disruption, progress. It is, and we have seen some impressive technologies rolled out for in store. But in retail, out in the wild, all that glitters is not gold.

Separating the glitter from marketing gold was the task Laura Davis Taylor, EVP of customer experience at MaxMedia and moderator at Friday’s panel session at SXSWi. “Beacons, M-Pay and The Great Shopper Reboot,” gave her panelists and a packed room one the most focused, most robust, most serious digital ad/marketing industry sessions on day one of SXSWi. She wrangled the digital profile of the elusive consumer “in the wild” (the retail store) with Daniel Gutwein, director of retail analytics, Intel; Sean Bartlett, director of digital experience, product and omni-channel integration, Lowe’s; and Ryan Bonifacino, SVP, digital, Alex and Ani.

The session began with the premise that “from showrooming to WebRooming, consumers have been transforming the shopping experience with personal technology long before retailers themselves caught on. But with the emergence of in-store sensor and beaconing technology as well as m-payments, retail is hoping to regain some control of their own stores. Can they? Will they? Should they? What does ‘consumer-centric’ shopping look like?”

(left to right) Laura Davis Taylor, EVP customer experience at MaxMedia and moderator at Friday’s panel session at SXSWi “Beacons, M-Pay and The Great Shopper Reboot”, with Sean Bartlett, director of digital experience, product, and omni-channel integration, Lowe’s; Daniel Gutwein, director of retail analytics, Intel; and Ryan Bonifacino, SVP, digital, Alex and Ani.

It’s Sx (South-by) after all, and large tasks are never addressed with PowerPoints, graphs and tables. But what could have turned into a trademark SXSW ramblefest was skillfully guided by the moderator and explored not just the latest flavor of in-store shopper connection– beacon technology– but did indeed tackle the more important question of whether we’re on track to finally connect with the consumer on the retail floor in a way that benefits all players, and avoids technology dead ends and privacy pitfalls.

This analyst can’t attend a session on this topic without reflecting on how we got where we are today. It’s a circuitous but clear path. The pull of brand, agency, media concern, and dollars, from above-the-line to in-store, is still recent. It was not that long ago that all the industry conferences featured countless presentations explaining that the old media–TV, and print–were tired, and more importantly they did not reach into the store. Online marketing brought new tools, but they also did not reach the consumers at the “moment of truth” when they were closer to the buying transaction.

Before the explosion of smartphones and smartphone apps, marketers first sought to create a new, fresh “media” based on big screens in stores and public places: the digital place-based network. TV-like screens in malls, in big box stores, and train stations. And these new networks were held up to be another media on which space could be bought and sold just like on the old media, or in the case of a major retailer’s in-house network, TV-like sales promos, and promotions and branding could work magic on the shopper steps away from POS.

Great idea. But three things happened.

First, there was a rude reminder to “be careful what you ask for." All the tech providers and digital place-based network space sellers asked (pleaded) that their sexy new media be respected and nurtured as much as their father’s old tired media, TV and print. "OK," said the agencies, brands, and retailers to the new kids on the block, "Then show me the metrics. If you are a new media platform, I want metrics on who saw what, when, where, and for how long. And then show me the resulting sales lift."

They were working on the metrics. Be patient. And didn’t the brands and agencies see the slide in the deck that said that return on opportunity was just as important as ROI? And after all, wasn’t it totally unfair that the new media was going to be called on the metrics carpet when old those old media had been coasting with squishy metrics for decades? Ah, yes, but did the new kids really think century-old turf was going to be given up in a fair fight on a level playing field? The fight is not over. In fact, the new kids are making a lot of progress (more than all the still social media-obsessed marketers here at SXSWi realize) getting marketing money redirected to in-store, with digital signage and branding in-store, and with other technologies that have evolved from NFC to Beacons; but it was never going to be an easy fight.

And then add to the mix that not that far back in the timeline, smartphones burst onto the stage and the new era began: every consumer had a screen in hand while shopping. Move to plan B: tie that little screen to other screens (at home, and in-store). The holy grail could surely be found with one app or another.

Finally, remember all the speakers at every conference proclaiming that TV ad effectiveness was dead? "That tired old media, put a fork in it!" Marketing money, they said, was going to shift from all that above-the-line ad spending to in-store. But there is a technical term for what happened next, to the "death of television." It’s called, ha!

For five years running, television has been experiencing a renaissance unprecedented in the history of media. Television is not only alive and kicking, it’s now eating other industries for breakfast. Here at SXSW in Austin, the SXSWi (Interactive) conference overlaps with SXSW Film, and both lead into SXSW Music. Well, SXSW Film might need to be renamed SXSW Television, because as the movie industry and the cinema exhibition sector, especially, now face enormous pressures, Television is expanding and has a voracious appetite and several generations– the youngest generations– of filmmakers are low-hanging fruit.

Since the breakthrough year 2010 when the interactive program of SX really took off, SXSW has touted the mash-up, if not convergence of all media industries. If you attend SXSW, and you don’t yet get the relationship of interactive (SXSWi), film (SXSW Film), and music (SXSW Music), and you think it’s just a coincidence that all three festivals/conferences happen together, then you’re looking at your industry with blinders on. The traditional agencies that serve advertising and the brands are still a bit in denial about television: that’s why agencies and brands are still excited about "video," with the implication that it’s a cool new tool they can control, on multiple platforms made up of screens small and large, nailed down or mobile. And maybe they can. In fact, there is a better chance that “video” can be harnessed for marketing by brands and agencies, than there is a chance that television can be harnessed to save the movie industry. And both the advertising industry (SXSWi, this week), and movie industry (SXSW Film), still have a shot to avoid the kind of swift and wholesale disruption (if not decimation) that befell an entire and iconic American industry–the music business–if they can learn from each other. That, by the way, is what SXSW is about (that and creative–or just fun–digressions).

But day one of MediaPost’s excellent conference-within-a-conference, was about Laura Davis Taylor–certainly one of the pioneers of digital marketing-at-retail–asking specific questions about retail. Are beacons–the latest connection platform in-store, with the shopper–different, or better, than previous tools? And what issues do beacons or other in-store tools raise in the bigger picture? Where is in-store digital marketing going?

From the agency perspective, Laura said that with in-store, you want to do one of two things: reduce friction in the shopping experience, or create “a happy speed bump." Sounds good. Keep it simple. So how do you do that, and with what tools? And does creating those little happy speedbumps in the shopper’s journey create privacy-issue speedbumps for the industry?

Dan Gutwein of Intel seemed keyed into using new technology tools to collect better data in store. Without referencing beacons specifically, he stepped back and painted a bigger picture of how we can now collect more “edge” data about what shoppers are doing in store. And how that data needs to be “clean, secure in the cloud." And you can get a lot of data without invading privacy, according to Gutwein.

You might remember that Intel was active in recent years, when the buzz about using digital signage screens in a retail environment started. And in fact, Intel acquired Cognovision in 2010, and then further developed the AIM Suite of hardware/software to do facial recognition in-store to improve in-store metrics, all while promising very robust privacy protocols that avoided infringing on consumers rights and wishes.

Since then, Intel and much of the industry has shifted gears somewhat and is now also focused on gathering and mining data from the field, and on using some of the same tools that were initially aimed at the consumer to increase both inventory management and employee efficiency in retail organizations. In Gutwein’s video clip at the session Friday, there was more about inventory management using digital tracking devices (with a brief clip on keeping track of beer kegs going out for distribution) than about video screens, large or small, in stores. Intel now has a "smart antenna," so that retail stores and brands can collect data without stepping across the privacy line.

Interestingly, Sean Bartlett of Lowes also pointed out the use of new employee-facing tools for retail. “We treat our associates just like the customers,” said Bartlett, when describing Lowe’s custom associate sharing app. Bartlett was addressing what everyone knows, but tech providers like to ignore: the biggest problem with retail is not a lack of technology tools. The biggest problem is poorly trained and poorly educated employees on the floor. Bartlett was saying: digital? Use the tools to help your retail staff help you sell.

But Bartlett also talked about Lowe’s initiatives to put “actual tools,” i.e. apps, “into the hands of customers.”

Ryan Bonifacino, SVP digital at Alex and Ani (a retail jewelry/accessory store) drilled down deeper into the technology under discussion, and explained how his company actually puts a “P&L to digital.” The store was one of the first retailers to use beacon technology (provided by Swirl Networks in Boston), to “create a bridge between retail and digital.” A customer at Alex and Ani can walk up to a product “in the wild” (i.e. in store) and then see the image and info on her personal device. They’re in store, their digital gets registered, and they close the loop. Done.

It wouldn’t be a thorough discussion if the moderator didn’t bring up the perennial business ethics issue of shopper connection technology–of hunting the shopper in the wild–that is the privacy issue. Laura Davis Taylor pointed out that especially with the trend now to gathering “data, data, data," aren’t there still privacy concerns? Will the shopper push back?

Dan Gutwein of Intel said that “you can get a lot of data without invading privacy” and commented–pointing to the pink shirt a fellow panelist was wearing–that you can track a pink shirt (on a shopper) in store, and invade no one’s privacy.

Retail analytics is probably more focused now on getting more POS data, inventory data, and mobile platform analysis, and less now on things like counting bodies, facial recognition, or the kind of tracking that is table stakes in the online world.

All of the panelists at Friday’s session “Beacons, M-Pay and The Great Shopper Reboot” are good corporate citizens and good citizens period, and their concern about privacy is well placed and appreciated. But as we sit here in early 2015, does anyone in our industry really believe that our consumer privacy–from a "shoppers" perspective–is still intact and needs protection? No one on the stage at the session Friday could or would say it, but speaking for myself, I’d say the inside of a retail store–even one where I’ve just opted in to a beacon-driven shopper app–is the last place I’d be worried about my privacy being invaded. Lets face the facts: in 2015, sitting on your couch, surfing the web while texting, paying all your bills online, watching OTT (over the top) TV, telling your life story in digital detail to anyone on Facebook, I’m sorry, but your privacy is... well, it may not be gone completely, but we're well past worrying about whether one or two or five more apps are going to be the ones that kill our "shopping" privacy. It’s now time to move on, and finally find out what new-gen technology tools can do to reinvigorate retail. Here at SXSW in Austin, retail may not be as sexy as film and music, but like those other two, it’s one of the great and iconic industries in this country’s history, and will be going forward if we can make sense of this all.

Watch the archived video clip of the session Beacons, M-Pay and The Great Shopper Reboot, here:

David Keene is a publishing executive and editorial leader with extensive business development and content marketing experience for top industry players on all sides of the media divide: publishers, brands, and service providers. Keene is the former content director of Digital Signage Magazine.