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Shopper GPS: How in-store mapping technology for mobile devices works

Retailers’ mobile apps can help shoppers navigate bricks-and-mort​ar stores to locate desired items—and can serve up relevant promotions to help seal the deal. Here’s how in-store mapping technology for mobile devices works and how marketers can maximize its potential. 

For today’s on-the-go consumers, leisurely shopping trips are a thing of the past. Now, consumers are increasingly turning to smartphone apps to help expedite their in-store purchases, enabling them to figure out what’s in-store and where to find it.

According to Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., 68% of consumers use their mobile devices in-store while shopping. Retailers are addressing this behavior by employing in-store mapping technology, which allows them to upload store floor plans onto their apps so that customers can search inventory and find out where products are located within the stores. And thanks to the oft-discussed mobile beacon technology, customers also can opt in via retailers’ mobile apps to receive push notifications for coupons and deals while they’re shopping based on their locations in the store.

For instance, Powell’s, a Portland, Ore.-based bookstore chain, offers an app with “turn-by-turn” directions to help customers find books on the shelves of its massive, warehouse-like flagship store. If a customer has opted in to receive offers through the app and he’s standing in the cookbook section, for example, the app could send a push notification to his smartphone offering 15% off of the latest celebrity chef’s best-seller.

One month after launching the app, Powell’s reported a five-figure increase in revenue for its flagship store, selling more books as a result of searches within the app, according to Jeff Hardison, vice president of marketing and business development at Portland, Ore.-based Meridian Inc., the mobile software company that created the software for the app. The app also allowed Powell’s employees to offer better customer service, he says. “Instead of directing customers to the bathroom or helping them find a book, a lot of the store associates were free to answer high-value questions like, ‘Which Toni Morrison book do you recommend?’ ”

In-store mapping technology also helps retailers gather customer data, says Nathan Pettyjohn, CEO of St. Louis-based Aisle411 Inc., which provides mobile location tracking services for retailers. “You can increase the shopper-to-buyer conversion ratio, increase loyalty and [improve the] customer experience, and generate valuable insights and analytics on shopper intent and behavior in the store,” he says.

Here’s how to get started with in-store mapping technology.

1. Determine your business goals. “First, you have to understand the customer need,” says Adam Silverman, principal analyst at Forrester who focuses on e-business and e-commerce strategies. “It may lead you to mapping technology, or it might mean that you have to hire one or two more people to greet people and give them directions. Don’t [create an app] without thinking about use cases first.”

Whether marketers’ goal is to draw more customers into their bricks-and-mortar locations, or to encourage loyalty, Hardison says that marketers should consider their customers first. “You should create a plan depending on who your customers are: whether they’re using a Safari browser to engage with you or they want to use an app, or [they’re] iPhone users versus Android users. Poll your customers and create an app that solves those business challenges, and then measure the experience to prove ROI to your executives.”

2. Make a map. Create a floor plan or schematic of your store to integrate into your app, says Peter Christianson, director of product marketing at Retailigence Corp., a Redwood City, Calif.-based marketing platform provider that helps stores provide location data for apps. “You don’t necessarily have to have real-time inventory, but it shouldn’t move around too frequently. The more granular you can get—the Tide is on this shelf, the Downy is on this shelf, as opposed to, the laundry detergent is on this shelf—the better.” Mobile technology services such as Swirl, Shopkick and Gimbal can help you manage your offers once your map is in place.

If you move inventory around, make sure that you edit your app accordingly, Christianson says. “If you’re sending data to a customer that doesn’t make sense, they’ll probably delete the app.”

3. Invest in adequate promotions. Use in-store signage and social media to encourage customers to download the app, and prompt them to sign up for the app when they sign in to your store’s Wi-Fi system, Hardison says. “Your free Wi-Fi is an opportunity to [reach] shoppers. On the page where you have your terms and conditions, why not have an advertisement within that and drive people to the app that you built in that same page?”

4. Be relevant. Don’t send multiple push notifications per visit, Pettyjohn says. “If you’re in a store and you get 20 pings, you’re going to be like: ‘This is nuts. I’m turning this off.’ But if you get a few that are highly relevant, you’ll actually welcome it because shoppers are there to buy and they want the best deal.”

According to Venice, Calif.-based mobile shopper marketing firm InMarket, app use drops by 313% when more than one push notification is delivered per location. “Push notifications need to be intelligent and personalized, and to do that, they have to be tied to CRM systems and loyalty programs,” Silverman says.

Linking apps to customer loyalty programs can help you deliver more relevant in-store offers, Pettyjohn says.

“If you’re in a parking lot of Walgreens, a banner will pop up that says, ‘Welcome to Walgreens on Main Street.’ Then it shows three things on that screen: your loyalty card, the product search and floor map, and coupons. It changes the game in targeting offers because, in the past, it was all about predictive analytics, saying, ‘Hey, we think you’re going to come in on this day and look for these things, so here are the offers we want to show you.’ Now we can say, ‘Nathan’s in here looking for cough and cold medicine, so he has a cold and there’s three other things related to colds that we can show him.’ ”

5. Be mindful of privacy concerns. Make sure that customers are opting in to receive your offers. “Only 23% of customers are comfortable allowing retailers to know their location in-store,” Silverman says. “Think about a use case that has convenience and value, drives the customer experience and addresses privacy concerns based upon location.”

6. Use data wisely. The customer data available from the apps can help product marketers determine which aisles garner the most foot traffic, Pettyjohn says. “It helps you understand where the most valuable aisles are and improve product placement, like, ‘I want my product in aisle five and I’m going to pay a slotting fee that’s higher for that because aisle five gets [high traffic].’ ”

Track everything, particularly coupon redemptions, to make sure that your offers are reaching—and appealing to—the right targets, Christianson says. “If you’re pushing 100 coupons and only one or two are getting redeemed, you might be annoying customers.”

No matter which in-store apps you use and what your goals are for using them, it’s important to remember the value of human customer service, Silverman says. “Add value in exchange for location information. Have discussions with your teams about how the store will transform, and how you’re going to create engagement in-aisle, especially for customers who are digitally enabled. Take a cautious approach. Much of the value of digital technology in stores will be to facilitate engagement with the associates, as much as it will be customer-facing.” ​

This was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Marketing News.

About the author:
Christine Birkner is the senior staff writer for Marketing News and Marketing News Weekly. E-mail her at

Categories: Advertising,Digital/Technology,Marketing.