Shoppers at the 180-store Westfield San Francisco Centre mall will notice something different this holiday season: Vacant storefronts covered in giant shopping touchscreens. Ebay and Westfield Labs built the three retail stations, which use “Connected Glass” technology, for Sony, Rebecca Minkoff, and Toms. During mall hours, customers use the connected glass storefronts to browse through items for sale. When customers see an item they want to purchase, the touchscreen sends information to their phone–which the customers then use to complete the transaction, skipping the messy process of entering credit cards on the giant touchscreen. It’s not just a gimmick: eBay sees connected glass as the way of the future for airports, train stations, and retail stores looking to integrate their e-commerce operations in brick and mortar experiences.
The digital storefronts will be installed from November 20 until January 12, and are based on the giant interactive touchscreens eBay used for an earlier Kate Spade collaboration. The Connected Glass storefront project is eBay’s largest touchscreen project to date. Vice president of innovations and new ventures Steve Yankovich (who was recently named one of Fast Company‘s most productive people), told us in a telephone interview that “Connected Glass is a bigger umbrella for what (eBay) is doing—any glass surface can be turned into an engagement service with an emphasis on commerce… We can take this technology and put it into glass in many forms. It can be adapted to interior glass, walls, tables, moveable kiosks, and outdoor surfaces.”
“Engagement” and “commerce” are the key words here. Ebay is in the middle of a long-term expansion of their business model which has less to do with auctions and everything to do with large retailers. As in the case for eBay Now, Connected Glass is a solution for retailers that allows them to leverage the auctioneers’ substantial e-commerce knowledge to move their own stock. In other words, it’s the exact opposite of Amazon’s long term strategy: Instead of using e-commerce to sell everything from one retailer to the consumer, eBay promises existing brands they’ll take care of e-commerce innovation–letting them fulfill transactions and deliveries with their own logistics chain. The savings for retailers, who otherwise would have to make their already-substantial e-commerce budgets even larger, is substantial. As eBay head of retail innovation Healey Cypher put it, “A lot of this goes back to realizing that retailers are commerce specialists–not technologists.”
Customers use the giant touchscreens, which build on innovation percolating throughout the retail and museum worlds, to browse home delivery offerings from Sony, Minkoff, and Toms. The e-commerce transactions are handled by eBay and Paypal, while delivery and logistics are handled by the retailer. Neither Minkoff nor Toms have retail locations inside Westfield San Francisco; Sony has a mall space where customers can pick up their item. When customers see an item they want, they checkout through the giant touchscreen; customers enter their mobile phone number, which is hidden on the screen, and then receive mobile HTML links on their phone. The HTML links allow them to complete their order though either Paypal or by credit or debit card.
The phone checkout is Connected Glass’ secret sauce. While it makes customers feel better because they’re not punching in their credit card numbers into a giant public touchscreen, completing the transactions via phone gives eBay and their partners access to a wealth of additional information. E-commerce isn’t only about making customers’ lives easier; it also spurs auxiliary profits through the massive amount of data it generates. The items customers browse online, the times of day they look at them, and even whether they look at them on mobile or desktop browsers is incredibly valuable information. By completing transactions on smartphones, eBay is gaining access to the powerful metrics generated by mobile commerce.
Metrics are also a selling point for eBay’s retail partners. Although brand awareness and publicity were a big selling point for Sony, Rebecca Minkoff, and Toms, the Connected Glass project is also about offering a new way to develop brick-and-mortar retail’s holy data grail: online-style analytics for flesh-and-blood shoppers. Yankovich said that the screens offer “precise web-case analytics, and create a brand new category for metrics in the real retail world. It saves money for businesses, and offers live analytics in real time.”
But for shoppers, the metrics and e-commerce/brick-and-mortrar convergence talk are far less interesting than the fact that eBay could be making holiday shopping easier. As Amazon continues their war on conventional retail, with giants Walmart and Target both scrambling to embrace mobile, and retailers everywhere look to retain customers, solutions like Connected Glass will likely be everywhere. Just think about it this way: As recently as ten years ago, American shoppers still felt deep ambivalence about entering their credit card numbers into a computer. That Rubicon has been crossed and shoppers have embraced Internet commerce; now brick-and-mortar stores want to learn from the Internet’s tricks.