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Illustration by Timothy Cook
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Mobile is what’s going to drive the last revolution. — Casey Quinlan, Mighty Casey MediaIsaac Harrell photo
Forget five years out. Swiping plastic cards and punching in pin numbers at the retail checkout will be a thing of the past within 18 months, according to Richmond-based technology prognosticators. Yep, 18 months until our mobile phones and tablets truly become our wallets and, with barely a touch, transfer money and content to another electronic device in a shop or to a friend through "near-field communication" (NFC).
It's not pie-in-the-sky stuff, considering that, as of last year, Starbucks began accepting payments by smartphone at more than 1,000 of its shops within Target. Plus, Google introduced its mobile wallet app in September on the Nexus S 4G Android smartphone. And folks are speculating that the iPhone5 will have it, says Doug Meacham, a founder of the Social Media Club of Richmond and a senior strategist for CrossView, which helps retail clients with their business strategy across multiple channels. Joel Erb, president of Richmond marketing firm INM United and a co-creator of the entertainment app Spot Trot, estimates that NFC will be in more mobile devices in less than a year.
"Mobile is what's going to drive the last revolution," says Casey Quinlan of Richmond-based Mighty Casey Media. "It will fully connect everyone because we will all have the world in our hand."
Erb adds: "Users are going to expect a single experience, the same interaction no matter where they are, whether it be in a retail location, on a blog, on a mobile device, on a website. It's going to put more strain on businesses to catch up."
To back that up, here's a jaw-dropping statistic: "There are 6.8 billion people on the planet. 5.1 billion of them own a cell phone, but only 4.2 billion own a toothbrush," according to the Mobile Marketing Association Asia. "NFC is going to change purchasing, our shopping experiences and how we are marketed to," says Erb, who studied business as well as sociology at the University of Richmond. "It's a little scary. [Mobile media] is changing how we interact as a species. The interactions that we are having with people are decreasing. A bump or text message is not the equivalent of a phone call. It's not the same as a face-to-face meeting. Business still comes down to relationships."
Maria Thomas, who addressed the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce's Extraordinary Women's Exchange in November, stressed that companies have to keep asking themselves, "How do you define your business?" And she used Amazon.com, which was founded in 1999, as a prime example. Back in July 2000, Business Week's cover ventured the headline asking, "Can Amazon Make It?" Twelve years later, after forays into different businesses such as auctions and web services, the company's tagline sums up what Amazon supposedly can do for the customer that no one else can: "Amazon.com … and you're done."
"You must invent on behalf of your customers," says Thomas, who worked for Amazon in its infancy, headed up digital media for NPR and is a former CEO of Etsy. "And remember what your core business is."
The Business of Comparison Shopping
In the world of retail, pricing apps — also known as barcode scanners — have become widely used over the past year, and how stores embrace them will be the future. With the advent of smartphones, consumers can now walk into retailers and immediately begin shopping their competitors. For example, the RedLaser app enables a customer to scan a barcode in a store and get prices from other local retailers on their phone. On the flip side, this past holiday season, Amazon used "crowdsourcing" to gather pricing data from all over the United States for one day. The company asked its customers to download its own price-checking app, scan up to three prices in brick-and-mortar stores on Dec. 10, and, in turn, Amazon would give customers up to $15 off three items in its inventory, Meacham says. "Retailers are having to get smart and leverage the technology," Meacham says. "Perhaps they can offer their own store app where folks can scan products in store and their competitors' prices will come up."
Just how does a smaller business coexist with the super-retailer Amazon, which just announced that it's placing two distribution centers in the Richmond region? Provide a superior in-store experience or partner with Amazon as a supplier, Meacham suggests. Also with Google, local results are now coming up first on mobile devices, making it even more important that retailers pass their inventory stock numbers to Google, he says. By 2014, more Internet searches will be done by mobile devices than desktops, according to Meacham. "That kind of changes the retail landscape."
Consumers also can expect to see more e-commerce sites on Facebook and QR codes on all products, which will allow them to pull up product information instantly. Another app called Shopkick — similar to the location-based networking tool Foursquare — interacts with shoppers on the hunt. A consumer can earn "kicks" by using the app in a retail store; meanwhile, that retailer is able to collect data on just what shoppers are browsing and how they travel through the store. You can be tracked in a store, Meacham says, and retailers, in turn, will give you loyalty points toward your purchases.
The Business of Being Social
Many retailers have been reluctant to create Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for individual stores. But a huge shift is occurring with that thinking, Meacham says. Two years ago, Best Buy created the Twelpforce as a companion to its Geek Squad, essentially turning its Twitter feed over to 32,000 people who work in its stores. The Twitter feed is manned by store personnel, answering real-time questions coming in from around the country. Best Buy also has several Facebook pages, each devoted to segments or tribes within its business, such as mobile, gaming and deal topics. In the fall of 2011, Walmart, whose advertising is overseen by the Richmond-based Martin Agency, started rolling out separate Facebook pages for each of its stores. "Social customer service" is what people expect, Meacham says.
And with the onset of more mobile capabilities, your content is going to become even more important, as well as how frequently you are updating that content, Erb says.
The Business of Being Heard
Erb also foresees voice technology becoming another significant digital disruptor and predicts a move from voice technology that can help you do or find something, such as the iPhone's Siri, to voice technology that can interpret sarcasm and emotions.
Erb and three other partners, including Richmond-based Susan Rucker, are testing a technology called VoiceMirror. "It's based on an algorithm that is language-agnostic and can read stress and emotion. … How believable is it, how sincere," Erb says.
In 2011, they placed the technology in one application geared to sales professionals who are practicing their pitches (salesmirror.net), and in another application (jobsmirror.net) geared to job seekers honing their interviewing techniques. Users can sign up to get up to five minutes of voice analysis every month for free through the websites. Beyond that, you can pay to subscribe to the sites for different amounts of analysis time.
"It's adding a layer of intelligence on top of voice technology," Erb says.