Indoor mapping gives power to retailers

For more than 7,000 years, humans have been making maps as a means to better understand and navigate the world around them. To mankind's good fortune, cartographers have come a long way from charting primitively with paint and parchment. With advances in technology, mapping has evolved in stride with civilization, and the new frontier of uncharted territory is quickly approaching in an unlikely place — indoors. 

While outdoor GPS mapping is nothing new to the many carriers of Garmins or iPhones and the like, indoor navigation maps are still in their infancy. For retailers, the concept of a mobile-based indoor and in-store map is an enticing tool that could satisfy savvy smartphone shoppers and save brick-and-mortars from going out of style. 

Recently, the Portland, Ore.-based mobile software company Meridian announced that its "glowing blue dot" feature was slated for use at Macy's 150,000 square-foot flagship store in New York City. Meridian's turn-by-turn navigation system at Macy's was one of three beta-test locations and the department store chain is the first major retailer to implement the indoor navigation feature.

According to Jeff Hardison, Meridian's VP of marketing and business, the indoor navigation system his company offers holds tremendous potential to retailers. Not only does it offer shoppers a utility to get around in stores, but retailers can also send targeted offers to them based on where they are standing in the store. Hardison said that on average, retailers can expect a 30-minute engagement time with shoppers using the app, with one in three shoppers clicking on the ads.

In addition, retailers looking to use the system have the choice to integrate the service into a pre-existing application, Hardison said.

"As compared to other positioning, we allow the retailer to preserve their own brand and own app," he said. "We simply improve the app."

Another key element of the navigation system, Hardison said, is that the shoppers can decide whether or not they want to use the location service and therefore have their movements tracked. 

"We use an opt-in process," Hardison explained. "Shoppers agree to share their location in order to get the utility, and once they agree to share we ask if they want to receive push notifications. We made sure we perfected the system for opt-in to make customers feel that they are agreeing to and knowing what they are getting in to."

The tracking ability gives detailed analytics to retailers, as well as a look at shopper traffic that can help them design store layout and product merchandising, Hardison said.

According to mobile strategist and analyst Bruce Krulwich of Grizzly Analytics, the tracking feature of Meridian's system is the key benefit to retailers.

"What they [Meridian] give more than any others is that all of the information about where people are moving is stored in the cloud," Krulwich said. "For retailers to know the dwell time as people walk around the store, this is data that retailers find attractive. It helps retailers know how many people are standing around thinking about what to buy."

The Meridian navigation system is compatible with both Android and iPhone operating systems, Hardison said. Since GPS is difficult to use indoors, the system uses WiFi to pinpoint shoppers' positions throughout the locations. Meridian also offers the NavKit SDK, which is a turn-by-turn system for smaller businesses that do not have WiFi.

While other start-ups and Internet behemoth Google are entering the indoor mapping world, Krulwich said he believes the industry will be large enough to house the competition.

"I think that within 2-to-3 years we will see indoor mapping and location services as big as outdoor is now," he said. "All major mobile companies are working on this. But they are looking at mass market, not the retail side of it. They are not quite as accurate as ones tied into the retail experience. Even if Google comes up with one, there is still room for more retail-oriented companies to bring more accuracy."

Read more about retail technology.

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