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Retail's Future: Facebook Loyalty Cards And Touch Screen Showrooms

Supermarkets using customers' Facebook accounts as simultaneous discount/surveillance platforms? Vending machines where you can pay by iPhone? Ordering luxury cars and private jets via iPad-like interfaces and sidestepping the salesman? They're all here.

Over in Europe, commercial brands are quietly working on technologies to change the way we shop for the next decade. For all kinds of reasons the tech has only been tentatively embraced Stateside.

But that's about to change. Supermarkets using customers' Facebook accounts to simultaneously watch customers and offer them discounts? Vending machines where you can pay by iPhone? Ordering luxury cars and private jets via iPad-like interfaces and sidestepping the salesman? It's all here.

German automaker Audi opened a new touchscreen-based showroom just off London's Piccadilly Circus, Audi City, earlier this month—right in time for the upcoming 2012 Olympics. Audi City functions equally as a showroom and tourist attraction. Well-heeled customers can order customized cars via touch-screen interfaces (kind of like the recently opened Tesla showroom in San Jose, California, designed by Apple retail guru George Blankeship). The touch screens, which are greatly indebted to the iPad aesthetic, let customers choose the model, engine, color, accessories, and other vehicle specifications. Information is then downloaded to a USB stick, which can be bought directly to a conventional Audi showroom for payment and processing. The salesperson—conventionally one of the most disliked aspects of car purchase—is made redundant in the equation.

According to sources close to the project, Audi City is experimenting with new retail technologies that are expected to trickle out to the larger market over the next few years. While Audi's order-via-touch-screen technology is fully functional, it's also situated so Olympic visitors can be wowed by the latest luxury cars and Audi's embrace of all things shiny and new. Over in Hyde Park Corner, however, is The Jet Business, the world's first "street-level corporate aviation showroom for the acquisition and sale of private jet aircraft." In another words: a car showroom for corporate jets.

Of course, large airplanes can't neatly fit inside central London retail spaces. And although The Jet Business is located on a highly visible corner, admission is by appointment only. Employees and customers have access to a large suite of touch-screen-based information systems, extensive market research systems, and a custom 26-foot display screen connected to a database of the world's business jets to match luxury customers with their future private jet. The Jet Business even sends representatives equipped with mobile devices on outcalls to customers worldwide. Digital showrooms are an increasing (if new) market sector; a recent report by consulting firm PSFK calls "bespoke at scale" one of the biggest innovations in retail.

NFC phone-enabled vending machines are another new European retail innovation that haven't quite caught on here. Creative agency Razorfish's office in Frankfurt recently debuted a NFC-enabled gumball machine for Samsung Galaxy tablet users to download apps, movies, and games. The gumball machine is more a proof of concept than a marketable model—there's a limited market for download apps from a physical vending machine when an app store is available anywhere, anytime with an easier user interface. However, the same technology that lets Samsung Galaxy users download apps from a vending machine can be reconfigured for Android or iPhone users to buy candy bars or soda without taking out change.

However, the technology with the quickest chance of catching on in the United States is the integration of supermarket loyalty cards with Facebook. British grocery giant Tesco recently launched a Facebook application, called Share and Earn, which is testing through the month of July. Share and Earn users connect their Tesco loyalty card numbers to their Facebook accounts. In exchange for liking selected products and sharing selected products with friends on their Facebook walls, users get double loyalty points. In exchange, Tesco gets valuable market intelligence on customer's shopping interests and the chance to push items via low-key, social marketing. Facebook analytics and reports give the grocery giant information on which items customers are interested in. American recipe site Gojee, which was recently featured in Fast Company, also uses similar supermarket reward card data processing.

[Image: Audi]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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  • Jordarn Muller

    Quite interesting article. Why dont you check some new updates of the touch screen market which is having a huge growth and the report is very useful containing all the statistics of the market.

  • PassKit

    I do think there is a big opportunity both for consumer and for businesses.  I know there are already many apps out there touting loyalty programs and competing for space.  But at the June 2012 Development conference, Apple announced Passbook.  It's a native app built into the new iPhone (and iPod touch) operating system that allows users to store all their 'tickets/loyalty cards/discount coupons' in one space.  Basically getting paper/plastic stuff out of your wallet/pocket and into the iPhone.

    At least for me, and the many many people I have spoken to they love the idea.  The fact it's a native app in iOS means that people won't need to 'decide' which smartphone app they want.  And because it's there when they buy the iPhone 5 (or update their iOS on their existing iPhone) people will be intrigued and perhaps even 'addicted' to getting passes in Passbook.

    I think Wise Adz is spot on that the experience needs to be slick and there needs to be a benefit. From my time playing with the app, Apple have invested a lot of time to make the digital wallet easy to use, fun to play with and a lot more convenient than fumbling around in a wallet.  

    So the benefits to the customer could simply start helping people who lose or forget their old 'punchcards' and miss out on their free latte, all the way through to gentle reminders that Passbook can send to the lock screen when the device holder walks past a particular shop that they have a discount or loyalty pass for.

    I think it's a space that business owners and marketing professionals can't afford to ignore, and it will be the customers that demand the convenience and fun user experience.

  • Grace

    I'm really interested in the switch to make loyalty programs more social. I think there's an incredible opportunity there. I know of at least one company that has already built a loyalty platform with social media integration, FiveStars. They're a pretty popular company in the Bay Area. I'd love to see more businesses adopt this type of forward thinking technology. 

  • Wize Adz

    An opportunity for what?  Remember the customer here.

    For instance, my local coffee shop replaced paper-based "buy 8 get one free" punchards with an RFID-based proxcard.  I use RFID-based proxcards for work.  Suddenly, using their loyalty program looks like the entrance procedure for a secure facility, and I no longer want to participate.  Sure it looks kinda cool running on the tablet and velcroed to the counter, but it changes the spirit of the loyalty program from a something friendly and noncommital to "don't confuse this with the ID you were issued by the security department."

    So, what does the customer get out of tying facebook to your store loyalty card?  Are they going to paste my grocery list to my timeline or what?

    I see why marketers may want it, but I don't see why customers would want to play along.

  • dan

    Well the customers would want to play along if they get something in return... such as discounts on groceries.

    At least, that's the idea...

  • Wize Adz

    That has limits, as I pointed out with my coffee shop example.

    By changing the interface of the the program from a happy little cardboard punchcard to a cryptographically secure RFID card, it changed the customer experience enough that it wasn't worth a free cup of coffee now and then.  To me, anyway.

    I'm an anecdote, rather than data, but I bet that the take rate on the new system is far lower than it was on the old one, at least since nearly all of the regulars that I saw declined the card.

    You seem to be thinking of this exclusively from the marketer's perspective, and forgetting the customer experience.  Remember that there's a relationship here, and that it's supposed to be a peer-to-peer relationship between the customer and the business (even though many businesses are in the habit of dictating terms until the customers walk en-masse).