Monday, 26 January 2009

The 3D virtual store

If you have a Sony PlayStation 3 games console you'll doubt be aware of, and probably tried, their free service 'PlayStation@Home' (P@H).

This free application and service on the PlayStation Network allows you access to a three-dimensional world which you can wander round, interact with objects, and communicate in real time with other PS/3 users who have also entered this world.

I think that the vivid detail and sense of presence, especially when viewed on an HD screen, is the most compelling 3D world I've yet seen. It's also easy to move around using the standard game controller.

It's made me think more about whether Tesco should have a 3D grocery superstore within a virtual world. Until I saw P@H, I had found 3D worlds such as the well-known Second Life rather flat and cartoon-like, and a Tesco presence would not be the immersive experience I was seeking.

Having a Tesco presence in the more graphically intense World of Warcraft would be fun if ever it were allowed. However, slaughtering dark wraiths and ghouls to gain clubcard points would probably not fit in with our brand (thank goodness someone else is accountable for business decisions round here!).

Far more interesting is the number of customers who ask me if we will provide a virtual 3D grocery superstore, whether in a virtual world or on our web site. I have chatted with many customers on the subject, so I could gain more understanding of what they are looking for.

For many, their point of view is:
  • The shopping experience would be more like bricks and mortar grocery shopping, so the move to online shopping would be easier to comprehend. The current online list-based product-search system is a very different experience and can be a learning curve.
  • Having other real customers in the virtual store (appearing as what the virtual world builders call 'avatars') would allow for social networking and cater for those who enjoy the social interaction of physical shopping.
  • 'Expert' avatars could be on hand to interact with, even if they were computer driven.
  • Shopping for groceries would be more fun.
However, I have to consider:
  • Can the customer's computer cope with the graphical and network broadband intensity of a 3D virtual store?
  • Grocery shopping online is all about speed and convenience. Would traversing a 3D store slow customers down? Is there a point about taking a long time to shop online that starts to compare, timewise, with jumping in the car and going to the shops?
  • Playstation@Home and Second Life are different and incompatible. So how many 3D stores do we build?!
  • If we allow customers to see each other in the virtual Tesco, could we end up with our customers having to barge past virtual dissenters demonstrating in the aisles, or being engaged in flirtatious conversation by someone when trying to get on with the shopping?! On the other hand, would you prefer the store to yourself - a cavernous Tesco Extra in which you wander through its great aisles alone?
Fortunately I take the view that we should act across multiple channels and, if customers are asking for it then we should at least trial something. We should try to provide for it on the hardware they have to hand.

My attitude is similar another great application online, BBC iPlayer. I can watch iPlayer on my PC, Mac, and Sony PlayStation/3 without technical considerations getting in the way (from my 'customer' perception) - it just works. Perfect - now let's try it with Tesco grocery.

It goes back to the foundation we are laying down - the Application Programming Interface (API) , now running in preview mode, which will allow us (and others) to create applications that will try out new ideas.

So, I'm very glad to say that one developer has contacted me to say that they are creating a 3D Tesco superstore using the API. When it's ready, I'll show it to you.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

The lure of dual-mode mobile phones

I've just arrived back in London after an enlightening few days in New York around the National Retail Foundation's annual retail conference "NRF 2009".

I met some very interesting people and was delighted to give a presentation to them alongside Lisa Fretwell, Cisco UK's Director, Retail & Consumer Products, and Jon Stine, director of Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) focused on the retail market. Cisco are of course known for their innovative networking products and it's no surprise to me that the majority of routers and switches serving the Internet come from this company.

Lisa and Jon invited me to join them in giving a presentation on an innovative subject which has been pleasantly niggling the back of my mind for some time now:

The more I look at the mobile phone offers available to the consumer, the more I notice the prevalence of "dual mode" phones. These offer both cellular and wifi connectivity enabling the user to surf the web, access emails, even place Voice over IP phone calls using either their cellular or wifi connection.

I have both my Apple iPhone 3G and Nokia E61, both of which can perform these cellular/wifi tasks with ease. I have owned the E61 for two years now and its total reliability in the face of the experience I have put it through (dropping, bending, genarally sitting on it and more) is impressive.

And I mean impressive! What other consumer-grade gadget is put through the horrendous wrangler of daily life that a mobile phone is subjected? What other consumer-grade gadget of the complexity of a mobile phone has the survivability and 24/7 reliability of a mobile phone?

And yet... as a retail organization Tesco prepares itself to spend many thousands of pounds on gadgets for store use specific to singular task or two (for example, stock checking). These portable barcode scanners, industrial quality pocket pcs and other devices that do one thing. They do it well but they can cost several times as much as an unlocked 'full price' dual-mode mobile phone.

So here's my question: Why not use a dual-mode mobile phone to perform these tasks? Roam the phone onto the wifi network and use the myriad software features available to such phones (such as the built-in camera) to scan barcodes, and run the applications as web-based 'software as a service' applications, or downloadable Java applications? These applications would only function (or be available) when the phone roams onto the in-store wifi network.

More: why not stop paying for devices altogether and get staff to use their own dual-mode phone?! People tend to look after their own devices more than someone elses - it's human nature (do you really look after a hire car as well as your own car?!).

So get staff to use their own dual-mode phones with applications that only work in-store. Provide security so a staff member has to have their phone registered (MAC address and more) to work on the in-store network. And then give them a £5 towards their call-credit each month if they do use their phone for work purposes!

Suddenly the cost of acquisition, depreciation, and maintenance of devices just goes away... do you like this idea yet?!

OK, don't stop there! Get customers to use their own mobile phones for all kinds of useful services when they walk into the store and can roam onto the internal wifi network too. Imagine a customer being able to open their web browser and use a product locator service when they are in the store - it could save both customer and staff time. Better yet, how about they upload a basket of items to the company web site before they leave home, then get their mobile phone to access a service that gets them round the store 'sat-nav' style in the quickest time?

OK so the devil is in the detail. But it's not a big devil. Let's think of the customer experience here:
  1. They arrive at the front of the store
  2. They see a sign that says:
    Use our wifi - start your browser and select 'Tesco' from your Wifi list'.
  3. They duly open their browser which causes the phone to list the available access points and they choose 'Tesco'.
  4. Their web browser tries to get to whatever home page the customer has set up - but is of course directed to a 'landing page' much the same way that you see a landing page when accessing the internet through a hotel wifi service, and you have to provide your credentials and possible payment details to proceed.
  5. The landing page offers services such as 'find a product' and, once marketing get this idea, a whole host of marketing messages.
OK, that's enough for now but I'll explore this idea further in the coming days.
This is going to be good.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Better, Simpler, Cheaper!

First of all may I wish you a Happy New Year!

I am excited about this year despite the gloom of the credit crunch because it means that all good organisations that wish to thrive under an economic downturn are companies that will look to technology to deliver the "Better / Simpler / Cheaper" rule.

I have expounded on this rule in a number of presentations - even to the point of getting delegates to say "better simpler cheaper' in different languages to drive the message home.

In short, whenever I review technology for a possible use in, I apply the "Better / Simpler / Cheaper" rule to see what priority (if any) I should give that technology:

Is it:
  • BETTER for customers - does the technology aim to offer the customer a much better service or experience than previously, something that they really want or have been asking for? If they haven't asked for it, why do we think it's good for them? Could it annoy some customers and they stop shopping with us? Do we keep the 'old way', whatever that is?
  • SIMPLER for staff - will the technology make the jobs of our staff easier than before because it simplifies one or more of their tasks and reduces the possibility of human error, or could it add annoyance and complexity? What will be the fallout if the technology breaks and staff have to go to manual processes again?
  • CHEAPER for Tesco - will we save money using this technology that we could not save just by improving some business process or other? Bear in mind that technology requires support and maintainance (both for itself and for supporting infrastructure), which itself costs money. Will we lose potential savings because it costs a lot to program? What about proprietary implementations versus open standards?

Any project that satisfies at least one of these three criteria in a positive way gets looked at further.

Any project that satisfies all three criteria positively floats its way to the top of my priority list!

I am giving a keynote presentation at the Cisco Retail Executive Briefing in New York on Sunday (11th January) where I will expand on this 'rule' in the field of mobile phone use by staff and customers. It takes place at 4:30pm (Eastern) at the Bowery Hotel, 335 Bowery Street, New York City and forms part of the "NRF 2009 - Innovation in Retail Forum".