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Too often we spend our time talking about digital experiences like they are completely separate from physical customer experiences. Yes, we like to shop online, but most of us like to walk through the mall once in a while too. 

Bridging the Physical with the Virtual

Here's the deal: most people do both right? Shop online and shop in the brick and mortar physical world. So it makes sense that these two ways to find information converge. This is what Siteworx, a design agency and system integrator, has been doing with its Concierge solution, enhancing the retail experience by using that smartphone nestled in your side pocket. 

Proximity based Promotion

Siteworx CEO, Tim McLaughlin, knows a lot about mobile technology and how to leverage it for customer experience. He explained to me how Bluetooth Low Energy (or Blue Tooth Smart) -- aka BLE -- has taken the idea of proximity based promotion to a new level. 

BLE, introduced with Bluetooth 4, is a low bandwidth protocol that doesn't consume a lot of battery (unlike its predecessor). It transmits low band information over long distances from about 3-500 feet. BLE is built into Apple devices after the iPhone 4S, including iPads and iPods, and although it is available in Samsung Galaxy (3 and 4) hardware, it's not supported by the Android operating system. 

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This BLE device is about the size of a US half dollar, and it includes a watch battery (which you don't have to replace for 1-2 years). The chip itself is really cheap and according to McLaughlin you can buy complete prototypes for about US$ 20 right now. McLaughlin mentioned a few ways this chip could be used, including the iWatch and the iBeacon. For those who don't know what iBeacon is, it is available in iOS7 and uses BLE to detect where you are located (i.e if you are standing in front of a fridge in Sears or next to a specific display stand). 

This technology, says McLaughlin can support sales by sharing additional information, rebates and deals, or by simply tracking data (assuming permission is granted). He believes that this technology is helping to further converge the physical and the virtual, and that when tied into asset management, content management and commerce systems, it offers all kinds of possibilities.

Where Concierge Fits In

Siteworx built Concierge to help brands manage content and related assets for things like promotions and product information without giving sales people actual devices (i.e iPads, etc..) that have the information. Using a customer's own mobile device, a mobile application can directly receive and display high resolution images and other information (all of which is tied into content management and commerce systems) based on what they are looking at in a physical store. 

This technology is being used not only in retail stores, but with mall owners and operators (so it works on a larger scales across retail stores) and in auto dealerships. The idea is that Concierge does not get rid of the salesperson (unless they are useless), but instead allows that salesperson to focus on value-added services that can help sell the product.

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Concierge is not a product you buy and implement. Siteworx's uses it as part of an engagement. It's a prototype that must be further customized and integrated with a customer's backend. It's like a "starting kit", but McLaughlin didn't really like that term. 

McLaughlin is seeing some product companies trying to do the same thing, but he doesn't see this as a standalone product. This capability is more a feature than it is a product. The cost of this capability isn't around the hardware itself, it's around the customization and integration to the customer's existing technology base.

Why Focus on Apple?

This technology does focus on Apple's devices, but according to McLaughlin, online purchasing power is over 50% for the iPhone alone. McLaughlin's hypotheses is that Apple users have higher purchasing power because they have more disposable income (this relates to the costs of iPhones vs Android phones). So while Concierge does support a smaller market (Apple iPhone makes up 30% of the smartphone market), it is the market that is most likely to buy.

McLaughlin did note that the Nokia Windows Phone also has BLE capabilities built-in and he believes if Microsoft can work out its app environment, it has the opportunity to do some innovative work.

The Blended Shopping Experience

This idea of a "blended" shopping experience isn't something Siteworx thought up on its own. It's commonly understood that customers leverage the vast information on the Internet to find information about products and services before they enter an actual store, and even while they are in an actual store.

In recent MA report, this idea was discussed:

This “new shopper” trend, is still in its embryonic stages, but several implications are already evident. Customers may know more about a store’s products than the store employees, sales associates must have single-point access to information and inventory control and loyalty programs must take cross-channel use into account.

In that report, and as stated above, the emphasis tends to be on giving sales people access to the information. But with apps like Concierge, with the assistance of technology like BLE, stores can drive that information directly to the customer at the exact point it might be required -- when the customer is standing directly in front of the product they are looking to buy. 

In some ways, Concierge is similar to the kiosk approach that some brands use inside their stores. These kiosks are placed within a store and offer customers a way to get more information on products. McLaughlin pointed out that kiosks create lines (assuming the demand is high). He also questioned why a brand would want to invest in a kiosk when it could leverage a customer's own smartphone for free..

Keeping a Focus on Mobile

Siteworx is very mobile focused, all their customers have a mobile and desktop experience simultaneously, based on responsive design. Some are also doing mobile apps (around 40%), based on transactional or offline portions of their business.

In their responsive design approach, Sitework designs the mobile experience first and works forward in what McLaughlin called three breakpoints: small, to mid (7-9 inch screens) to large (desktop and older iPads. In addition, they reuse APIs from the web experience to build a native app (which is how the Concierge solution is designed).

McLaughlin noted that 30% of all Google searches are on mobile devices, and what that tells him and should tell us all, is that brands need a mobile web solution. You can still have the app in the app store, but Google is expecting that mobile web experience and if you want to be found, it better be a good one. 

Adobe research showed that customers like using mobile apps from brands they love, which is more evidence that apps like Concierge have a great sales proposition. Catching the customer when they are in the moment, providing more information or incentives is smart. Having that information tied directly into back-end systems is smarter. I know I would use an app like that. Would you?

Image Courtesy of Stuart Miles (shutterstock)