Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How Mobile Apps can Help Local Retailers

Every Christmas shopping season many big and small retailers get more nervous on how the internet and mobile technology is changing the way consumers shop. The internet is not new a phenomena. It has been growing at a steady pace since Amazon and others took root during the dotcom days. However, I think this holiday season is different. It has really hit home with many in the retail industry that not only are shoppers looking to do more of their shopping online, but they are changing their shopping habits altogether.

It comes as no surprise that some things are easy to buy online such as books, video games and electronics, to name a few. Sales of such products have been growing steadily online (and shrinking at at brick and mortar retailers). There are plenty of examples of physically retailers shutting down and either moving everything online or just going out of business. Again this is not a big surprise as this has been growing season by season. However, what is really getting the traditional retailers even more concerned now is a new dynamic that is coming together to create a perfect storm that sending more people online than before. Mobile applications are the new driver for a new way to shop that people are starting to utilize more and more.

With smartphones now common place, people are getting accustomed to using their mobile devices to comparison shop while they are in their local retail stores. The problem is, more an more people are using local stores as showrooms and then making their purchases online. The combination of the internet, smartphones, barcode scanners, online product lookup/comparison, social networking/sharing is making it hard for local merchants and stores to close transactions in their physical stores. The consumer just has too many tools and too much information at their finger tips.

Some retailers like Target are resorting to some radical methods to hold the consumer captive once they enter their stores. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Target is an example how things can get a little extreme. Target more or less wants to isolate the consumer and wall them off from the internet to limit what they can do with their mobile apps once they enter Target. One can understand the situation that Target and other local merchants are in when it comes to competing with the online guys, but I argue this is the wrong way to go about it and will end badly for those that do not embrace the new social mobile shopping evolution.

Sure, Target can force their vendors to create custom brands with unique UPC codes so that products become hard to search and compare online (and with other local stores). But this will not work in the long run. All that Target is doing is isolating themselves much the same way AOL did by not fully embracing the internet and mobile/social shopping. The walled garden will not work. It will come down sooner or later. At OfferDrop we understand this first hand. While we use UPC codes for product lookup in our mobile apps, for example, we do not rely on this and plan to make searching and comparing much more unstructured in the future as we move to more powerful search and comparison tools that do not depend on UPC barcodes in the future.

Anyway, I got off the subject. Local merchants need to embrace the mobile and social shopping dynamic not try to contain it when shoppers enter their stores. Instead what Target and all other local merchants should do is go social and connect with their customers in ways that the online guys can't. Do not just push exclusive coupons and deals to consumers, interact with them at a personal level when they enter your stores. For example, if a shopper scans a product in your store and posts about it their friends or social network, the local merchant should be part of this social network and follow up with the customer and offer them a coupon or see if shopper asked a question and give them an answer about the product right on the spot. Or followup with the customer after they leave, but the main point is that the local merchant should be part of the shoppers local social network. Embrace social and mobile applications do not hide behind them or just offer your own walled garden app. And this goes beyond just offering coupons and deals. Make it personal with the shopper. This can be especially powerful for smaller merchants who can get more intimate with their shoppers and their local shopping network.

This is our battle cry at OfferDrop. We want to empower the local merchant (big and small) and allow them to connect in meaningful ways with their local customers. We believe local shopping has as much to gain from mobile shopping tools and social networks as do online virtual stores. Get on OfferDrop and start making shopping social.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Coupons Gone Wild

OfferDrop recently introduced support for socializing coupons. Now, coupons are an interesting beast that come in different shapes and sizes. You got your web coupons, paper coupons, store coupon, manufacturer coupons...etc. Enough to say you got all sorts of coupons out there and different ways to redeem them. And redeeming them has its own challenges. It is not clear if any real standards will evolve with web coupons either. Coupons have historically been a free for all and web coupons look no different.

If your favorite store has an optical scanner you might be lucky enough that they can even scan a coupon barcode right off your phone's display. If they don't have an optical scanner (many only have laser scanners) you are probably out of luck and have to watch the cashier painfully enter the coupon code by hand. Maybe in the future you can just shake you phone or point it at the direction of the casher and your coupons will flow (don't hold your breath for NFC).

Well, with OfferDrop we where not totally sure what to do with coupons when we first looked at adding the concept to the OfferDrop network. Our main goal was for people to share what coupons they found in anyway they coude with others in their circle.

We wanted a simple concept, so we decided to make it as flexible as possible. In OfferDrop, you can added a comment to a product posting and simply comment that a product at a particular store has a particular type of coupon available and to describe how or where to find it or maybe even include a URL for it, if it is a web based coupon, for example. If you happen to have the coupon in front of you, you can even take a photo of it and upload it to the OfferDrop network and attach it to the product posting in order share the photo of the coupon with everyone following this product or following you. If you take a good enough picture of the coupon, the end user might even be able to use at the checkout scanner - hold that camera steady! And hopefully the store you are at has an optical scanner.

With this approach to coupons in OfferDrop, we made coupon sharing very open and flexible. People can share just about any kind of coupon offers they find and share them with their friends and followers. How you redeem the coupon can still be a trick, but we will get there one day.

Give OfferDrop a spin and try the coupon sharing feature. If you are a coupon hunter this is a nice way to share what you find with others and let others benefit from your coupon hunting skills.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Leveraging NoSQL Database Scalability

I am excited about announcing support for MongoDB in the OfferDrop cloud. We expect great things from MongoDB in order to drive scalability and performance of OfferDrop mobile and cloud services. Stay tuned for more details. We hope to discuss our adventures with MongoDB and porting from MySQL to NoSQL in the coming months.

I am also quite excited about the MongoDB 2.2 features coming out soon. They will make many of the things we need to power OfferDrop queries and data management possible. We are looking forward to taking advantage of the new aggregation framework. We are also keeping an eye on Amazon's new DynamoDB NoSQL service. Could prove useful especially considering the low cost of infrastructure maintenance.

Go Cloud Computing!


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mobile Shopping Dead or Alive?

Dead might be the wrong word. Actually, mobile and social shopping has yet to be born. Instead, the landscape is littered with a countless variety of mobile shopping apps, none of which are truly social at their center. You have a wide spectrum of apps out there. First you have the utility based apps that help you compare local products and prices with online stores or maybe manage a shopping list - things like that. Then you go to the other end of the spectrum with animated cartoon looking mobile shopping apps that need a user's manual to understand - but cool looking for sure. Some look like something from a Pokemon movie with graphics and characters bouncing and shaking around like an over designed 1990's website. And for the most part, their angle is to push some exclusive deal or offer on to you from some local or online merchant or try to get you to earn some kind of point rewards and win a trinket or two. Maybe I am being a bit harsh, but you be the judge.

None of these social shopping apps are anything close to being social. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but they are not truly social applications and that is what we are missing. Twitter, facebook and foursqare are true social platforms because they depend on the member community to generate the vast majority of their content. They rely on people and merchants to establish relationships between each other and the world around them. The more people that join the more powerful the app/network becomes for everyone (not just the service provider). The current crop of social shopping apps seem to have missed that memo. Instead they are more like a circus act trying to get you into the big top to watch a few fun attractions using some combination of gimmicks, barcode scanners and GPS features. But these kinds of apps will never get ingrained into the psyche and daily habits of people in same way as twitter, facebook, or foursquare. A different approach is needed.

Successful social apps become part of your regular activity and are largely driven by the behavior of the users themselves and the connections users make with each other and with their surroundings. This should be no different for local shopping. Pushing exclusive deals or getting the user to bounce around stores to earn points is a one-way street controlled by the service provider and not a social network. The consumer and local merchant are not empowered and social networks are all about empowering the end user to interact and contribute back to the network. The more people that join the stronger and more valuable the network becomes. And to be clear, what I mean by successful is not just the success of the start-up or online giant that delivers this service, but success for us means the consumer and local merchant are really benefiting and where the social shopping apps makes a difference in their lives from both a financial and quality of life perspective. Twitter has changed the way people behave and express themselves and for social shopping to be successful it needs to do the same. And this also applies for local merchants as well. They stand to benefit greatly from a truly social shopping network where they are not just offering cut throat deals that are not sustainable. Local merchants leveraging an open social shopping network can benefit from the visibility a social network can provide and that is currently only available to the highest advertising bidder. With an open social shopping community everyone benefits from the consumer to the local merchant (not to mention the service provider).

Consider Wikipedia as an example. Wikipedia would be just another online static encyclopedia if not for the vibrant community of contributors and the way Wikipedia empowers users to interact and contribute. Social shopping, for it to really take off and make a lasting impact in people's lives, needs to leverage the consumer and local merchant in a way that empowers them to share and interact with other fellow shoppers, merchants and with their community as a whole.

At OfferDrop, we strongly believe in this model and are passionate about making this type of open social shopping experience available to the consumer and local merchant. Call us rebels or call us crazy, but we plan to shake things up. We might get stepped on and trampled on along the way, but we strongly believe in what we are doing and hope you will join us.

Version 1.3 of OfferDrop is currently available in the Apple store. We are also feverishly working on an Android version and have many new features coming out in version 2.0 that will keep pushing the envelope. Please check out our website and download our app.