Retailers have been talking about enabling consumers to pay for groceries using their mobile phones for years but, in reality, the mobile payments revolution is still some way off.
Many of the technological intricacies still need to be worked out and, with so many parties wanting to claim a slice of the market – from retailers and banks to mobile operators and phone makers – the value chain is looking increasingly crowded.
However, this does not mean that new technologies are not infiltrating the retail industry. Mobile marketers now regularly make use of geo-fencing, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, QR codes and even augmented reality to tempt shoppers into stores and drive sales.
Near-field communications (NFC) is one of the most popular of these technologies. While NFC is generally touted as the technology that will enable contactless mobile payments, it is already transforming the shopping experience in some parts of the world.
For example, the French supermarket chain Casino is using an NFC commerce platform from start-up company Think&Go to create an NFC customer experience at its store in the Belles Feuilles shopping centre in Paris.
Think&Go marketing director Tim Baker told Techworld that the company first got a contract with Casino to help improve the shopping experience for visually impaired customers who have difficulty reading product packaging.
Think&Go placed bright red NFC tags in front of products on shop shelves, so that when customers touched their phones to the tag they could view product information via a mobile interface with big yellow characters on a black background.
The company also incorporated voice synthesis, so that the phone could read out the name of the product, as well as the price, ingredients and nutritional information, if desired.
Casino liked the technology so much that it decided to offer NFC shopping to the rest of its Belles Feuilles customers. Baker described this as the next step on from hand scanners, which are already being widely deployed in France.
With hand scanners, customers use a hand-held barcode scanner to scan a product before putting it into their basket. At the end of their shop, they simply plug the hand scanner into a checkout machine and pay for their goods, without having to unpack and re-pack their basket.
While this system is very popular, it is expensive for supermarkets to roll out - it costs about €200,000 to equip a shop with this technology. Think&Go offers the same experience but with less upfront cost to the retailer, as customers can use their own NFC-enabled phones to scan products.
“It's much cheaper for the supermarket and it is much more convenient for the user because he's already got it in his pocket, he doesn't have to go and fetch a reader,” said Baker.
Casino customers wanting to use the system must download an app to their iPhone or Android device. Although NFC is still not included in Apple products, iPhone users can still participate by picking up an NFC sleeve for their phone as they enter the store.
As the customer walks around the shop and scans items, the app compiles a list of everything in the basket, so that the customer can keep track of their purchases, and add or subtract items.
Unlike most NFC tags, which work by fetching information from the cloud, Think&Go's architecture is completely network resistant, according to Baker. The application contains a database of 170,000 available products, so items can be added to the basket even if there is no network access.
“We're not talking about advertising, we're talking about actually filling your shopping basket, and we can't be in a situation where they say, I can't buy this product because I haven't got any network,” he said.