The first online shopping site, Intershop, was established in 1994, followed closely by Amazon and eBay. Since then, online shopping has expanded into the multi-billion dollar ecommerce industry that exists today.
Despite the growth of online shopping, consumers still research products online and then purchase that same product in a physical store. A US consumer survey commissioned by the Art Technology Group (ATG), published in March 2010, found that “30% of consumers today actually use three or more channels for a single transaction.”
This process, known as cross-channel shopping, has been linked with many factors. These include the need for a tactile experience that drives many consumers into their local stores ahead of online retailers. However, finding the exact product you have researched online in an offline store can be difficult. Until you visit the store you may not know if the product is in stock, or if it is at a reasonable price.
Philip McNamara noticed the need for greater transparency in relation to offline store inventory when he was searching for a gift over two years ago. “I remember I was in San Francisco and I was looking for a present for my friend. San Francisco is this really high tech amazing city. I was looking for a specific bike part and I remember I went to five shops asking for this. The first shop didn’t know if he had it, the next shop didn’t have it, next shop didn’t have it and it was a real pain.”
This experience prompted Philip to establish TapMap, a platform for retailers to publish their inventory data on mobile devices. A consumer can then search or scan the barcode on a desired product to check the availability of it in their local stores and compare it to online products.
Philip says “a lot of the retailers right now are competing actively against the big guys whether they like it or not. A lot of consumers are researching online, they know exactly what they want to buy and retailers are loosing out. They’re not being seen and they can’t be found. We want to change that.”
TapMap works with large retailers like O’Brien’s Wines, Unicarepharmacy and Evergreen Health Foods. It is also currently in discussions with retailers from the consumer electronics, health and beauty and toys and games sectors in Ireland, the UK and the US.
TapMap plugs into the retailer’s point-of-sale system and takes a feed of their data. This updates automatically in real-time or for example, every 2 hours or 24 hours. When a customer then searches for or scans a product, TapMap accesses the retailer’s data to inform the customer if the product is in stock, how much it costs and to provide a comparison with online retailers.
Many offline retailers are currently questioning whether they need to develop their own smartphone app (software application) to appeal to their customers. Philip believes that this is unnecessary.
“What the app will do is cost you €100,000 at least. There are about 350,000 apps in the app store and about 100,000 apps in the android store. No one will download it, and if they do download it, what value will they get from that? It’ll tell them maybe: Here’s my local store. I know that already. Here’s what’s in stock. Fine. But can I compare prices? No. Is it giving the consumer real value? No, so they’ll just delete it.”
Instead, Philip has this message for retailers: “What Google are saying is in the next two to three years there’ll be more queries going from mobile devices than there will be from fixed devices. Mobile is going through the roof. Whether you like it or not, your customers are researching your products and they’re finding them online really easily but they don’t know if they’re in your stores.
We know that, even despite the growth of e-commerce in the last ten years, the majority of all shopping is done in local stores. So people are researching online and buying in local shops. So if you don’t allow people to see that it’s in stock in your local store your customers will go somewhere else. They’ll go to Tesco because they know it’s in stock or else they’ll go to Amazon or eBay. So you’re going to lose out.”
With direct access to retailer’s inventory data, TapMap is conscious of maintaining high levels of data protection. Philip says, “When someone requests a price, it’s one person with oneprice and that’s what we give back. We don’t mine all the retailer’s prices and we don’t show their prices to anybody else. That’s their private data.”
The data captured, however, can be used to provide an insight into the retailer’s brand and the consumer interaction with it. Philip explains, “We can look at a retailers live data. We can see when there’s a big spike in demand and we can tell the retailer – of what people are scanning across the mobile web – what the top products are. When anybody scans the barcode of a product like in a shop, a pub or at home, we capture the latitude and longitude of that scan. That’s a lot of rich valuable data that we can use to give marketing companies or brands more insight into their own brands. But we don’t know that this comes from this exact store or this particular person. It’s all anonymised data.”
The ATG commissioned consumer survey also found that only 9% of people questioned never purchase products in a physical store. This figure highlights the continuing importance of brick and mortar stores to consumers. With the emergence of new technologies like TapMap, the offline store now has an opportunity to compete more directly with its online counterparts to maintain this importance in the online age.