In recent years, retailers, including booksellers, have become increasingly frustrated with showrooming. That could change thanks to a growing number of technology startups that are developing indoor-mapping apps—software that will make it easier for customers to find what they want in a store. Some of these apps also make recommendations for in-store purchases based on the location of the store or the contents of the customer’s shopping cart on the retailer’s e-commerce site.
Two and a half years ago, Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., became the first bookseller to sign on to be part of mobile-software-maker Meridian’s way-finding app. It saw a five-figure increase in revenue for its flagship store in the first month alone, according to Jeff Hardison, v-p of marketing and business development at Meridian. The company also built the B&N Bookstore app for B&N and pioneered triangulating Wi-Fi hardware to simulate GPS indoors for the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2010. The Meridian app freed up Powell’s staff from fielding bathroom-location inquiries, and it allowed the store to create a new revenue channel by marketing space on its mobile home page to publishers.
It’s no secret that many shoppers carry smartphones. And that’s the good news, according to Hardison. Previously, he said, “people were tethered to their homes [and home computers]; with mobile, people are going back to stores.” He’s not the only one to see the potential in mobile for bricks-and-mortar stores. A Google Shopper Marketing Agency Council study conducted late last year found that eight in 10 shoppers with smartphones use their phones to help with in-store shopping. And those shoppers spent up to 25% more in stores than customers who only occasionally use mobile phones while shopping.
Smartphone or no, 20% of shoppers who can’t find the books or items they are looking for will simply leave the store, said Aisle411 CEO Nathan Pettyjohn in a recent TV interview. It’s a problem his company, founded in 2008, is trying to overcome. He got the idea for his company’s indoor-mapping app when he was shopping at Lowe’s and couldn’t find a surge protector. Aisle411’s app now features maps of more than 12,000 retail locations. While many are big-box stores like Home Depot, the company is about to announce its first partnership with a library.
Paul Lin’s aha moment came when he was looking for vitamins for his kids. He and his brother, Pierre, are trying to make it easier for people to find the books they want in stores. Their Cambridge, Mass.–based startup, Lineage Networks, began a pilot program for its AisleConnect app with nearby MIT Press Bookstore in April, and the app could have a soft launch at Harvard Book Store as early as this week. Harvard’s app won’t be fully operational until late October. Lineage Networks is the only indoor-map app maker that is specifically focusing on indie booksellers and other independent businesses. For now the company is targeting the Boston and New York metropolitan areas. The AisleConnect app is currently available at the Apple App Store and will soon be Android compatible.
“One of our differentiation points is that we provide a more end-to-end experience to shoppers, helping them every step of the way in their shopping experience,” Lin said. Lineage Networks uses the tagline “Online, In-store, Connected” to describe what AisleConnect does for shoppers. Retailers that participate in the service can find out not just what customers bought but what they put in their online baskets and decided not to buy. They can also use push notifications to let shoppers know about books and products that may interest them.
Customers can use AisleConnect to plan their shopping trips, making checklists before they get to a store or while they’re there. The app lets them share as many details about searches, scans, checklists, and purchases with other users as they choose. They can also scan books and read descriptions online or search for books available in the store and locate them with the app’s map. Customers who use the app while in a participating bookstore can add books to their online shopping carts—a process that facilitates checkout through AisleConnect’s patented POS connector.
The MIT Press Bookstore offers a discount to shoppers who preload their carts through the app. “The store is small, so it’s a good fit as a test case,” said John Jenkins, the store’s manager, adding, “We figure that there are customers who are too timid to ask questions.” Still, the app got off to a slow start there, since it launched close to graduation. In addition, some of the store’s customers have expressed concerns about privacy. Jenkins is looking forward to more stores signing on. “The more stores this is in, the more people will be interested,” he predicted.
Harvard Book Store owner Jeff Mayersohn wanted to test AisleConnect for similar reasons. “We’re interested in the technology, in part,” he said, “because we suspect that there are people who don’t ask for help. Beyond that, this is another way for customers to find their way around the store, find out what we have in our inventory, [and be given] assistance if they’re in a hurry and all booksellers are temporarily occupied.”