Five Questions for the Thinaire Platform

 

Ever since I was involved in developing a mobile application myself, I have gained an undue fascination of mobile application platforms – also known as, “why bother building all the component pieces, when they should be a solved problem?” The retail space is no exception, as stores feel they need to get onto the mobile bandwagon but can to easily end up reinventing the wheel without feeling the potential benefits.

 
Solving this is not as simple as it seems – retailers want to be customer focused without becoming creeoptimize want to optimise their interactions and grow loyalty without unnecessary intrusion; as they look to become more effective and efficient, they want to learn by doing, but their well-meant efforts can become expensive dead-ends. It’s too easy to blow the budget before achieving the goals, even if these are known at the outset.
Faced with such dilemmas, the availability of a platform of components for ‘smarter’ retail would appear to be a boon. So, what gives? I had an email exchange with Thinaire CEO, Mike Ventimiglia, to find out more.

1. In the face of an increasingly diverse pool of “smart” retail solutions, what is the problem Thinaire sets out to solve?

For far too many retailers, a customer that doesn’t have their branded app, and isn’t logged in, is essentially invisible. On top of that, when we ask retailers about the penetration rates of their apps, we generally get numbers well under 10%, which is frighteningly low. That’s often where the conversation with Thinaire starts: our technologies dramatically lowers the effort required by consumers to access the full range of smarter retail solutions.

Whether it’s fine-grained location data driving product positioning, advanced loyalty programs, shelf-talkers, unattended retail, or all of the above and more, Thinaire reduces friction, simplifies delivery, and derives meaningful data at every stage of the customer journey. In many cases Thinaire is able to deliver measurably better retail experiences with no requirement for an app, and we offer a range of no-capex options if there is any infrastructure required to support any particular deployment.

2. What consumer demographics are driving the need for digitally oriented solutions?

We know that under 25’s spend, on average, 9 hours per day curating their digital selves, and other cohorts are not far behind. Everyone demands that their smart device intercede with the real world for them!

This data signals, among other things, a massive and growing demand for content to support each individual’s “personal brand.”  So retail brands that frictionlessly deliver images, video, offers, experiences, etc. aligned with customers’ “personal brands.”  This will generate a large pool of passionate advocates by making authentic personal recommendations, and hence building their brands concurrently.

3. And meanwhile, what kinds of efficiency savings can be had by smarter use of in-store technology?

The future of retail is either extremely high-touch, or no-touch. In other words, fully digitally connected, personalized immersive experiences, or simply “get out of my way” unattended.

To realize efficiencies from “high-touch,” cycle time is absolutely key. So technology that already knows who you are and what you want before you’re even in the retail space (for example) can powerfully assist in delivering faster turnaround. Thinaire’s “virtual loyalty” technologies are deployed to provide exactly this capability.

The drivers of “no-touch” are quite different.  For these applications Thinaire’s technologies are put to use (for example) replacing expensive and failure-prone kiosks, with simpler, cheaper, faster all-screen units more responsive to the customer’s smart device by leveraging the device’s own capabilities.

4. How ‘digitally ready’ does an organisation have to be to adopt solutions such as Thinaire?

Our customers range from digital natives, to analog high-touch retailers taking their first steps in digital by customer demand.

Our ability to deploy both the hardware and the software required for even the most complex requirement means we are truly “full service.” On the other hand, if the customer just wants smarter sensors to pour quality data into their digitally-aware CRM, we can do that too.

5. How are things going to evolve in the next 3-5 years would you say?

There’s a wonderful video on YouTube of a 3-year-old interacting with a printed photograph. She attempts to make it zoom by pinching her fingers, and then immediately hands it to Mommy, insisting “It’s broken!” Of course, given her expectations of how photos work on her parent’s devices, for her it really is broken!

That’s a metaphor for the next 3-5 years in retail. Retailers that don’t meet consumer expectations by leveraging all the capabilities of customer’s smart devices will be seen by those same customers as “broken.”

My Take: People will always buy, but how?
The retail industry, which has often been cited as slow to the digital revolution party, is seeing the world change beneath its feet. While retail organisations may be seen as the blocker, if the problem was so simple to solve, most retailers would have changed by now. But simply saying “you need to think omni-channel,” or “how about digital transformation,” comes up against issues of integration, of supply chain complexity and of a fast-moving environment which cannot afford to stop for a day, never mind the weeks required to make a sustainable difference.
Technology can obviously help, particularly pre-tested platforms of functionality such as Thinaire. Few startups are building from scratch, but generally they target a specific problem whereas major retailers have to cover all their bases. Meanwhile the number of retail, marketing and advertising technology providers continues to proliferate, increasing the pressure to succeed at the same time as reducing clarity on the viable options.
Nonetheless, the starting point has to be a recognition that retailers cannot go it alone, but need to rely on a technology platform. There is simply no time to re-invent the wheel: using pre-built capabilities, retailers can learn more quickly about the needs of their customers, their stores, their offerings and their processes. Failing fast, improving and then succeeding has to be a better option than just failing.

Why Retailers Need to be Utilizing Mobile Payments, and How They Can Choose Systems Wisely

While the ecommerce market has grown rapidly in recent years, and is set to continue to boom, the fact is that most retail transactions are still actually completed in bricks and mortar stores. However, as more and more consumers get used to the convenience and quick process of buying online, it’s imperative that retailers use every tool at their disposal to streamline transactions in store, and to offer customers an excellent experience at every touchpoint.

One of the ways they can do that is through using mobile payments (mPOS). A BI Intelligence report forecasted that there will be a whopping 27.7 million mPOS devices in circulation by 2021 in the United States, up from just 3.2 million items seven years prior.
For many retailers though, the introduction of mobile payments isn’t a priority yet, so mPOS adoption continues to lag. However, if you’re an entrepreneur who hasn’t started using this tech, you’re probably not just missing out on sales, but also losing the opportunity to build consumer loyalty and increase referrals.
Mobile payments allow retailers to help customers complete checkouts more quickly, and locate stock in store. They also enable businesses to better manage inventory and to customize shopping experiences for clients, to name just a few benefits. If you’re ready to start providing this payment option to your shoppers this year, read on for some ways you can go about choosing a system wisely.

Determine Which Features You’ll Need

To begin with, before you start narrowing down your shortlist of providers, it’s important to stop and think about what kind of features you need in a system. Not all operators provide the same kinds of services, so the more clear you are about what you’re after, the easier it will be to narrow your search.
For example, you may only need a basic merchant account if all you’ll do is process debit or credit card payments on a smartphone. However, you might alternatively require a raft of features, or something in particular, that means you should look for a more comprehensive service. Some entrepreneurs want a mobile payment system to incorporate a loyalty program or some inventory management functionality, while others may prefer a company that specifically serves their business niche.
Something else to think about is whether or not you want to choose a provider that offers scalability in its features, and flexibility in its plans (this is important if your business is growing and the number of or type of transactions you have now will be different in the future). You might, perhaps, need a merchant provider that can accept things like American Express and Diners Club cards, PayPal, and Apple Wallet transactions, and loyalty points.

Evaluate Security Levels


Next, keep in mind that the security protocols of the mPOS system you choose also need to be comprehensive so that not only will your customers’ details be kept safe from prying eyes, but also your firm’s. Remember: hackers across the globe are finding increasingly sophisticated ways to break into accounts these days, plus consumers are particularly sensitive to data hacks and will typically discount companies if they’ve been hacked.
As you learn more about the firms on your shortlist, find out what level of security they can provide you with. For instance, do they use an integrated, or a safer semi-integrated, payment architecture? Plus, do they use complex encryption algorithms and have data encryption in place for all exchanges; do they enable CVV2 verification on transactions; are the highest-level SSL certificates accepted; are there restrictions on how data is sent and stored via an Internet connection; and do they provide billing address security for every transaction?

Weigh Up Fees

Of course, for most business owners, one of the prime factors evaluated when choosing an mPOS system is cost. However, while you certainly do need to think about this, make sure you’re actually comparing “apples with apples” when you weigh up the different options.
While some firms may look the most affordable at first glance, a bit of research may reveal they charge extra for things that other providers don’t. For example, they could have additional fees for setting up your account or integrating their software with your system; for taking certain types of transactions; for providing customer support; or for changing plans or canceling your account.
As well, look into the different ways companies calculate transaction fees. Some have a variable fee calculated according to the number of sales made by month or other period, while others have different plans to choose from, or may just charge a flat fee per transaction regardless of the amount of transactions or dollar value of sales per period. You’ll have to determine which option will be the best value for money for you, based on the kinds of sales figures (current and projected) you have.  

What’s a Store For?

The first e-commerce transaction—a music CD, pizza, or weed, depending on who you ask—took place around thirty years ago. That means that first truly native ecommerce generation is now in charge of their own foot traffic and armed with at least one device that spares them the trouble of leaving the house. This, paired with the broader shift in consumer behavior across all generations, means brick and mortars need to find new ways to compete with digital to inspire visits and sales. Stores are evolving and, along the way, challenging the very notion of what a store is for.
Up against digital
A big part of brick and mortar’s evolution is digital integration. Today, retailers are working to enhance and personalize customer experience by connecting to consumers in-store through their mobile devices—building apps, targeting ads, and using beacons. You can find many examples of digital integration today, though online retailer Rebecca Minkoff’s flagship store in New York offers one of the more comprehensive ones; its interactive wall and dressing rooms have been credited with tripling expected clothing sales. Timberland also just launched its first connected store while Nordstrom’s commitment to digital integration has been credited with 50% growth in revenue over 5 years. (They just hired a former Amazon exec to serve as CTO.) Target, too, is getting into the mix, launching an LA25 initiative where it’s testing 50 of its top enhancements in 25 Los Angeles stores.
The IRL advantage
But digital integration is not the only strategy; retailers can also draw on the in-real-life [IRL] advantages of the physical space. Immediacy comes in here, with more retailers enabling online ordering and pick up in store or curbside. It’s competitive because fewer exclusively online retailers can offer this instant gratification, but is not necessarily a long-term strategy given that online fulfillment will continue to evolve and speed up.
More effective is the opportunity to build community. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of caffeine; Barnes and Noble was an early innovator here, adding a Starbucks to a New Jersey store back in 1993. Since then, many retailers have adopted or tested in-store cafes, including Urban Outfitters, Target, Restoration Hardware, and Kohl’s. Along the same lines, Target, Whole Foods, and Nordstrom, among others, are offering cocktails in some stores. When trying to attract customers and increase dwell time, there’s an advantage in offering something that can’t be instantly downloaded, like coffee, booze, and yes, maybe even tattoos. (See Whole Foods.)
Meanwhile, another concept that keeps popping up is—ahem—the pop up shop. The pop up shop’s currency is urgency; if customers don’t come now they risk missing out forever. Bloomingdales is hosting a pop up inspired by the musical Hamilton while Macy’s is bringing in pop ups as part of the reinvention of its Brooklyn store. The pop up also presents a low-risk testing ground for online retailers, one compelling example being Warby Parker’s touring store that was housed in a school bus.
But…is it a store?
As brick and mortar adapts, becoming deeper integrated with digital, acting a fulfillment center and expanding to offer drinks and other services, the classic definition of “store” begins to fragment. Already, the “store” has lost its longstanding position as the finale of the customer purchase funnel; in no small part because that purchase funnel itself is an antiquated concept. Savvy retailers and brands in general now think of the consumer experience as an ongoing loop, with consumers moving from digital to physical and back until, eventually, there may be no clear delineation between the two. This emphasis on the overall experience changes the expectations of stores. It also opens opportunities for more types of brands to invest in physical locations.
For example, last year, there was an more than an hour wait at the Museum of Feelings in downtown New York City. The museum invited visitors to walk through a sensory presentation of each feeling: Optimism, Joy, Invigorated, Exhilarated and Calm, while its exterior changed color to reflect the social mood of New York. You might argue that this wasn’t actually a store, but then it wasn’t actually a museum either; The Museum of Feelings was a branded retail experience for Glade, generating buzz for an otherwise not-so-buzzed-about brand.
More recently, Samsung launched Samsung 837, a “first-its-kind cultural destination, digital playground and marketing center of excellence.” Samsung 837 serves as a showcase for innovation, offering what may be the first virtual reality experience for many visitors and providing Instagram-friendly experiences like the walk-through Social Media Gallery. But what’s unique about Samsung’s space is that there is nothing sold there. It’s an experience—an opportunity for Samsung to tell its story and give visitors a way to get excited about the brand they’ll buy in the future.
In cases like these, brick and mortars serve as a marketing vehicle—an opportunity for brands to curate their own presence for customers, just as social provided the format to operate as a media company. It’s a trend that makes Amazon’s decision to open its own brick and mortars seem strategic. But is the return there?
It always comes back to data
The ability to more accurately track consumer activity gives brick and mortars a host of insights. Not only can the more connected store know what was purchased, they can also see what products compelled the most research, price comparisons, or inspired trips to the fitting room. They can engage with in-store customers via social media as well as encourage and measure posts from their store and, increasingly, tap into emotional analytics. Further, more sophisticated attribution measurement is making it possible to determine what investments drove traffic to the store, even without purchase.
Though it would be inaccurate to suggest that traffic and sales aren’t still the key performance indicators for most stores, this broader set of data, if put to use, can help a retailer optimize beyond the limits of its four walls—especially critical at a time when stores are closing so rapidly that CNN wrote “Store Closings are the Hottest Trend in Retail.”
Where to go from here
Digital has an odd way of creating challenges and then presenting solutions for those challenges it creates. It offers a range of ways of to add genuine value, from brand awareness to interaction, coupled with pop-up flexibility. If retailers are savvier about embracing this value, they’ll stand a better chance of attracting customers. If not, they’re not only missing out on opportunities in the near term, they’re limiting their future prospects for growth—after all, isn’t it a waste to see a store as a fulfilment outlet?

A new retail model for a new class of devices

Heading into CES I’ve been thinking about all of the connected consumer devices flooding the market, some of them from established manufacturers like Whirlpool, many more crowd funded experiments in hardware design. It’s that second group—the droves of folks with bright ideas, like connected bike locks and smart water heaters, that could improve our lives, but which essentially exist outside of standard retail channels.
One of the core issues with all of these products that are effectively being developed by small businesses is that there’s no way to get the products into the hands of customers. Shelf space in retail electronics stores is a precious commodity, reserved for products that represent large revenue drivers for big box stores.
But perhaps a larger issue with where we are in the evolution of consumer IoT products is that there is no way to get many of these products into the hands of consumers so they can try them, so they can see why connectivity might make a difference in their user experience, and then make the purchase. We operate on the assumption that everything can be sold via eretailers. And it can. But I still think in store experiences help, particularly in the early stages of a product launch.
On December 11th, b8ta launched in Palo Alto. Founded by a group of ex Nest employees, b8ta is a small (1400 square feet) physical store that features approximately fifty of the most exciting products in IoT. You can walk in, give that smart thermostat or connected light bulb a spin, and see if it’s for you.
If the prevailing response to the ecommerce revolution among brick and mortar retailers has been to create experiences for customers ala Tesla and the Apple Store rather than sell goods, b8ta represents the epitomy of such a strategy. Come in. Try. Play. Learn about connected products.
The problem, of course, is that stores need to sell goods and not everyone’s a tech darling like Apple and Tesla. And while I’m curious to see how well b8ta is able to actually move product, what’s even more compelling about the startup is its business model.
The company has no inventory risk because it takes everything on consignment. It pays its suppliers once sales have been made minus a commission plus monthly subscription fees. B8ta built a software system that allows companies to onboard their product into the system, see where the product is in the store, track sales, as well as access in store iPads that allow companies to control their merchandising by remotely updating the iPad.
Thought of a different way, b8ta is not a store in the way that we think of stores as purely sales channels. Rather, the b8ta store is effectively a marketing platform that gives small business IoT startups a chance to get their products displayed in retail, something that will be nearly impossible for them in the Best Buys and Apple Stores of the world.
Creating experiences for customers is clearly a premium brand type strategy but given that consumer IoT, to my mind, still requires a certain degree of interest in technology on the side of the consumer, this strategy is actually timely. Not to mention the location in Palo Alto is the right demographic to start with.
The other thread that runs through the b8ta store concept is scalability and elasticity, to borrow some of the themes from the cloud, the share economy and really the modern trend in business and consumer behavior. When I spoke with b8ta co-founder Vibhu Norby, he noted “we needed to be agile enough to be able to ramp up inventory for a really good company, and ramp down for ones that weren’t succeeding.”
The ability to provide product manufacturers access to data on sales and give them greater control of their products in store should help them manage their production runs, at least at the early small scale stages. And in a consumer IoT world where hundreds, if not thousands, of connected products are coming and going, a company like b8ta has to be in a position of rapidly moving products on and off its shelves depending on what connects with its customers.
Scalability, viewing retail as an experience, consignment rather than inventory, marketing platform rather than a sales channel. These all represent a new wave of thinking about how consumers and the retail outlets serving them need to behave.
And with consumer IoT representing a fundamentally new way that consumers are being asked to interact with the electronics products in their lives, it stands to reason that we might just need a new retail model for a new generation of hardware developers.
 

The Gift Card Sector Comes of Age. Part 2 of 5: The Business, Social and Technology Trends Driving E-Gift Card Adoption, Innovation and Investment

In Part One of our look at the gift card sector, we provided an overview of the accelerated activity characterizing the sector over the past 4 years. Now in Part Two, we will examine some of the drivers behind the segment’s growth.
The Investment Perspective
FinTech in general is hot. And Square’s meteoric rise, led by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, made retail POS – and payments in general — sexy in that “ripe for innovation” kind of way. As a segment within the FinTech category that correlates closely with the growth of mobile payment technologies, e-gift cards are understandably an area of interest. And an area that is not yet saturated or highly visible (relative to say, the post-Square POS me-too frenzy), enabling even smaller funds to get in on a good deal.
Mobile Device and App Proliferation
The ubiquity of smart phones and the emerging use of mobile wallets makes e-gift card transactions a logical next step in ecommerce adoption for early adopter/tech savvy consumers. And for the underbanked, who are increasingly mobilized, e-gift apps can be the first and/or are the only step available to them for participating in the electronic purchase of goods and services.
Consumer Migration To All Things Digital
U.S. consumers are clearly weary of the physical store. This season’s unprecedented boycott of in-store Black Friday by some major retailers like REI and consumers’ growing weariness with, and wariness of the physical retail store experience this year reached an inflection point, morphing from mere disenchantment to angry action, with growing support for the consumer boycotting of Black Friday.
Rather than abandoning the retailers, consumers continued to engage with their favored brands online, with REI experiencing a 10-26% rise in online sales during the Thanksgiving holiday, according to digital analytics company SimilarWeb. Other retailers saw even more dramatic increases in online sales, with GameStop and Staples experiencing a one-day rise of 120%+, PetSmart a rise of 69% and Nordstrom and Pier1 both reporting a 54% one-day rise in web traffic. Overall, Black Friday in-store sales dropped by more than $1 billion – or 10% from previous year holiday sales while online sales increased. In fact, a National Retail Federation (NRF) survey found that indeed more people shopped online (103 million) than at the store (102 million) during the Thanksgiving/Black Friday period.
Gift cards are playing a part in this migration online, with consumer attitudes about gift cards changing as the sector provides more value-added features that increase the level of both physical and e-gift card personalization available to consumers, and that provide the convenience of allowing users to add value, store and transact with the cards anytime, anywhere. Moreover, marketplaces like Raise, Cardpool and Giftcards.com are enabling people to buy gift cards online for a discount, making gift cards even more appealing in some cases than the purchase of a discounted physical good as you could theoretically double dip – use the full value of a discounted card to buy a wanted item when it goes on sale.
At the same time, in both the U.S. and Canada, e-gift cards are not only viewed as acceptable, but increasingly as the preferred way to show gift appreciation.
In the next Part Three of this series about the gift card sector, we’ll look at how the growth of gift card business model and technology innovation is not just about the convenience of the pre-paid card, but about a larger trend towards the de-centralization of consumer finances, driven by such factors as millennial distrust of the bank as the sole institution for housing one’s money, and the broadening ranks of the under-banked.

‘Poshmark’ adds retail brands to its seller community

Poshmark announced today that it will start adding well-known retail brands to its active community of women’s fashion-focused buyers and sellers.

The move is pretty significant for Poshmark. The service launched in 2011 as an online marketplace that brings buyers and sellers together and has, until now, been a platform for designed primarily for clothing and accessory resale. There are over a million sellers on Poshmark uploading the inventory equivalent of a Nordstorm store every week. With the combined power of Poshmark’s sellers, the platform is essentially opening just over 50 Nordstrom stores each year, with more than 5,000 brands represented in said inventory.

Not only is the seller community active, though — Poshmark’s buyers are also a very active bunch. Poshmark founder and CEO Manish Chandra highlights the importance of the strong, active community to Poshmark’s success. Much of the company’s efforts revolve around building user feeds and providing both buyers and sellers with tools that keep users engaged.

“The result is that today, our average user opens the app somewhere between 7 to 9 times a day, and spends somewhere between 20 to 25 minutes a day in the app,” says Chandra. “So, you have some Instagram/Facebook-level of engagement in the platform.”

Those are some pretty impressive usage stats. Over the last few years as Poshmark has been scaling rapidly, with their users following suit. Though many of the sellers in the Poshmark network likely started selling out of their own closets, some have begun tapping local wholesale markets and, as Chandra says, “effectively converting their closet into a full-blown fashion boutique.”

That said, this is why the move to expand into retail opportunities makes a lot of sense. Poshmark’s expansion is going to center around a wholesale portal that’ll give sellers the opportunity to connect with brands and buy merchandise to sell in their online Poshmark stores through said portal. For many sellers, this means access to new wholesale channels and inventory. Style Mafia and Snob Essentials are among the first round of brands spearheading the retail expansion, but dozens more are set to join the charge.

Snob Essentials Wholesale Closet Edit

“We wanted fashion brands to be able to connect this massive sales force of one million sellers that we’ve created and also for sellers to have access to the best of the best and even to the new fashion brands that are emerging,” says Chandra. “So to do that, we’ve created a wholesale portal, which allows fashion brands to stock up wholesale inventory into that portal and for our sellers to come in and shop… and really buy wholesale inventory directly from their brands on our platform, and then use that existing commerce and logistics engine to service their platform.”

On the buyer side, the Poshmark experience will give buyers the flexibility to choose between resale and retail items, or to browse both. Chandra compares Poshmark’s vast catalog and new shopping options to Uber, where users have some flexibility in tailoring their experience, whether it’s UberX or Black Car service. “It gives a flexibility that shoppers have really never had on any platform out there to choose how and what they shop.”

Though Poshmark is expanding its services into an entirely new arena with retail opportunities, much of Poshmark’s main focus is unchanged. Because Poshmark’s strength doesn’t necessary lie with specific brands or a single outstanding feature, it lies within the community. This expansion isn’t an attempt to overhaul user experience, but to give the buying, selling and brand communities new ways to access one another.

Poshmark Wholesale Portal Edit

“In one shot, [brands] can move inventory into a group of sellers that they never had access to. For sellers, they can come to one area, choose the brands they like, and stock up their stores in ones shot. And for our shoppers, they start to get access to an increasingly large selection of merchandise, which gives them the power to shop resale and retail. And we’re launching the wholesale portal partnership with over a dozen different fashion brands, with many many more in the pipeline.”

In addition to the retail wholesale portal expansion, Poshmark is also announcing  a new “Poshmark Fashion Entrepreneurs Fund”, which will award $500 grants (not loans, grants) to 50 Poshmark sellers to help them begin scaling their business.

“That, I think, is very much who we are,” says Chandra. “Our growth is synergistic with the growth of our community, and everything we do is really to support our community to grow, which ultimately drives the growth of Poshmark.”

Grocery shopping might be less painful with this smart cart

Cambridge Consultants, a product development group based in the U.K., is showing off a connected shopping cart that can tell a retailer where you are in a store within three feet. The smart carts are equipped with Bluetooth radios and sensors to track the cart’s location so store owners can offer promotions and eliminate checkout lines. It also means fewer carts will leave the parking lot.

The smart cart design involves off-the shelf sensors strapped to the wheel of an existing shopping cart that are actually powered by the movement of the wheel. So there’s no need to worry about changing the battery inside. The technology is pretty cheap — about £5 ($7.60) — per cart, and should get cheaper with a bit more tinkering and larger orders.

Thanks to the Bluetooth sensors on the cart, beacons around the store, and the ability to track the movement of the wheels and correlate that to the distance the cart has traveled, a retailer can get an incredibly accurate sense of where the shopping cart is inside the store. This is as accurate as many indoor location technology providers and doesn’t require fancy infrastructure, such as RFID readers or a system the relies a customer to have a dedicated app for the store.

Data from the cart is sent to a server on the premise or can be sent up to the cloud for later analysis. But the real value seems to be in taking immediate action to generate sales by notifying customers of promotions when he or she is in front of a display (this would require an app) and then allocating enough staff to reduce wait time when that same customer is ready to check out. There’s also the possibility of offering cool services like generating maps around the store based on a shopping list (another service that would require an app). This could be cool if it tied in with Instacart to help shoppers fill orders faster or even helped fill similar orders at the same time.

Privacy advocates might appreciate that the cart is the item being tracked as opposed to the users’ mobile phone, although those shopping might be frustrated knowing all the data-driven tricks that retailers are using to try to get them to spend more money. The cart is still in the concept phase but Cambridge Consultants is talking to retailers to try to find pilot customers.

Instacart vs. Google Express vs. Prime Pantry: Which grocery delivery site is best for your family?

Is there such a thing as a grocery shopping nerd? If so, I am one. I love strolling down supermarket aisles, comparing prices and ingredient lists and discovering new products.

For some reason my one-year-old has zero patience for this. And I’ve never been a big FreshDirect fan. Luckily, the past year has marked the availability of three different services — Instacart, [company]Google[/company] Express and Amazon’s Prime Pantry — in New York City. I’ve been testing these services for the past several months and have found that they solve many of FreshDirect’s problems, making online grocery shopping an actual pleasure for nerds like me. Here’s how they stack up.

The red-headed stepchild: Prime Pantry

Note: Amazon Fresh, Amazon’s same-day grocery delivery service, is more comparable to Instacart than Prime Pantry is. But Amazon Fresh isn’t available in my area yet, so I haven’t tested it.

The idea: Buy nonperishable items in “everyday sizes” (like a single can of Pringles or a bag of dog food).

Cost: The service is for Prime members only, who already pay $99/year; delivery of each Prime Pantry box is an additional $5.99.

Availability: Prime members in all the U.S. states except Hawaii and Alaska.

Pros: The prices on available items are very good. A 16-ounce box of Wheat Thins cost $3.88 on Prime Pantry, for instance, while a 9.1-ounce box is $3.89 at Fairway.

Amazon Prime Pantry screenshot

While Amazon advises that boxes ship within four business days, my box came faster — I ordered it Monday and it came Wednesday. But that may be because I am near an Amazon fulfillment center.

Cons: Using Prime Pantry requires a lot of knowledge of and patience for Amazon’s various pricing schemes, which seem to be getting more complicated and less convenient.

For instance: [company]Amazon[/company] recently launched its own brand of diapers for Prime members (for Prime members’ babies, I should say), and I wanted to test them (look for my review soon). But I didn’t want to order a giant box of them. My only option for buying a smaller package of the diapers was to get them via Prime Pantry. And that meant that, in order to not waste the $5.99 shipping surcharge be a complete waste, I needed to order a bunch of other things from Prime Pantry to fill my box.

No Triscuits for you.

No Triscuits for you — even though both are made by Nabisco.

 

Unfortunately, the selection is limited. Amazon says it will be expanding, but for now there’s often no logical difference between the items that are and aren’t available. You can get a box of cinnamon graham crackers, for example, but not a box of plain graham crackers; lemon-lime seltzer but not unflavored seltzer; Wheat Thins but not Triscuits.

In addition, Amazon’s implication that this is the most cost-efficient to get “everyday size” items isn’t completely true. There were several small items that I couldn’t order through Prime Pantry at all — instead, I could only order them as “Add-on” items to regular orders. Amazon specifies that “the Add-on program allows Amazon to offer thousands of low-priced items that would be cost-prohibitive to ship on their own”; it seems odd that the selections of Prime Pantry and Add-on items aren’t the same.

If you’re in a big city served by Instacart or Google Express — and even if you’re not — Prime Pantry just may not make that much sense to you. It seems a lot more like one of Amazon’s many experiments than a fully-fledged and useful service. You can be part of the experiment, but your mileage may vary.

Runner-up: Google Express

The idea: Shop online for items from physical stores like Costco, Target and Toys “R” Us and get them delivered on the same day. Groceries aren’t the service’s only focus — and that’s a good thing, because Google Express can’t deliver fresh or cold food. So produce, meat and milk are all out.

Cost: Google Express (formerly Google Shopping Express) was a ridiculously good deal in its trial phase — I got my first six months free, with no order minimums, through a deal that’s no longer available. But as the service expands it’s toughening up: Google announced in October that membership will be $95/year or $10/month on orders over $15, with the first three months free.

Google Express pricing screenshot

Areas: San Francisco, Peninsula & San Jose, West Los Angeles, Manhattan, Chicago, Boston and Washington, DC

Vendors: Varies based on city; includes chains like Costco, Barnes & Noble, Walgreens

Pros: Google Express prices reflect in-store sales, while Instacart’s usually don’t. Want to be a master grocery nerd? Divide your shopping list between Google Express and Instacart, using Google Express for non-perishable grocery items that are on sale. I sometimes save a whole $3 by doing this.

Check out all the cents I saved on a recent order.

Check out all the cents I saved on a recent Google Express order.

Packaging is sensible and not wasteful. A baby gate I ordered from [company]Target[/company] was delivered in its original shrink wrap with no extra packaging; groceries come in plain paper bags.

You can add your loyalty cards to Google Express’s website to earn the same points that you would if you were doing the shopping yourself.

And the trial price — zero for same-day delivery — can’t be beat.

Cons: No fresh food. You can’t do all your grocery shopping through Google Express unless you subsist on granola bars and candy.

Right now, you can only order alcohol through the service if you live in the Bay Area.

Delivery windows are less precise than Instacart’s — you can request a morning, afternoon, or evening delivery window but can’t narrow it down to the hour.

If you want stuff from Costco, you have to be a Costco member.

No wasteful packaging here.

No wasteful packaging here.

The winner: Instacart

The idea: “The Uber of…” Okay, you get it. Order groceries from stores online and a personal shopper delivers them to you.

Cost: Starts at $3.99 for two-hour delivery and $5.99 for one-hour delivery when you spend $35 or more. Instacart Express offers unlimited deliveries of two-hour and scheduled grocery orders over $35 for $99 per year.

Cities: Atlanta, Austin, Boulder, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, DC. (Not available in all zip codes in these cities.)

Vendors: Varies based on city

Instagram produce screenshot

Instacart can help you eat your veggies.

Pros: Lots of grocery store chains are partnering with Instacart as their default online shopping option — which is why you’ll see it promoted in New York [company]Whole Foods[/company] and Fairway stores. This means that by using it you get the best of both worlds — a well-designed, mobile-friendly shopping experience and all of the selection of the best grocery stores. (Compare that to FreshDirect with its clunky interface and limited selection.)

In many instances, you will pay the same prices for groceries ordered on Instacart that you would in the store. Whole Foods and Fairway offer price parity in NYC, for instance, and a company spokeswoman told me the company “would like to be able to offer price parity for all the stores” and hopes to do in coming months.

Instacart is fast. Depending on the store and your location, it’s not always possible to get your groceries delivered within an hour — but I’ve almost always been able to get them delivered the same day. You can also schedule deliveries a day or more in advance.

Instacart relies on personal shoppers, and all of my experiences with them have been great — they shop with care, especially for produce, and with thought. A fresh baguette that I ordered, for example, came with a plastic bag tied around the end that was sticking out of the paper wrapping, to prevent it from drying out. When I ordered two pounds of string beans, each bean was fresh and green; the shopper had picked through them so I didn’t have to.

The “substitutions” feature is one of my favorite parts of Instacart. For each item that you order, you can designate a substitute item in case your first choice is out of stock. You can tick a box requesting that your shopper call or text you about any substitions they’re making in-store, or you can just choose to leave it up to them. On a couple of occasions when both my primary and back-up item were out of stock and I’d requested no calls, the shopper made smart decisions — grilled chicken breasts for grilled salmon, for example.

Instacart substitutions

The substitutions feature recommends replacements for you; you can change them if you don’t like them.

You can add additional items to your order after it’s placed. As far as I can tell, you can make changes up until your shopper is actually in the store.

Shoppers have almost always arrived within the specified time window; if they are running late, Instacart will email and text you (you can also track your orders from their website and app). In a couple of cases when a shopper ran late, Instacart gave me credit without me asking for it.

Instacart deliveries usually arrive in reusable shopping bags, which you can either keep or give back to your shopper the next time. Sometimes the orders come in the grocery store’s regular plastic shopping bags. But they don’t arrive with the immense amount of packaging that FreshDirect and Amazon Fresh deliveries include.

There is [company]Costco[/company] — a store that until now was off-limits to me as a city resident without a car — and you don’t have to have a membership for Instacart to shop there for you.

It’s easy to tip on a credit card.

Finally, users of the Amex Blue Cash cards, which provide extra cash back on grocery store purchases, should note that American Express has begun coding Instacart purchases as groceries — so you will earn extra points on these purchases the way you would at physical grocery stores.

Cons: Instacart’s prices often don’t reflect in-store sales the way Google Express prices do (see below). It’s not possible to add shopper loyalty or rewards cards.

There’s the rich-person-paying-for-convenience guilt factor, certainly. You see the person who did your shopping for you: They come to your door and give you your groceries. In some instances I’ve carried my daughter to the door with me as if to show that I had a “reason” for not doing the grocery shopping myself. An Instacart spokeswoman told me that shoppers — who are independent contractors — are “paid using a formula based on the number of orders in a shift and the number of items in each order. They can make up to $20 an hour plus tips on busy days.”

I tip 15 percent on every Instacart order and rate all of my shoppers five stars — but I have never had a reason to rate lower.

Barnes & Noble and Microsoft call off their Nook partnership

In the middle of yet another disappointing earnings report Thursday, Barnes & Noble announced that it’s terminating the strategic partnership it formed with Microsoft in 2012. That partnership had combined Barnes & Noble’s Nook and college businesses into a division called Nook Media, into which Microsoft invested $300 million.

According to the company:

Such termination will allow the Company to continue its rationalization of the NOOK Digital business and enhances Barnes & Noble’s operational and strategic flexibility.  The termination also relieves Microsoft of any obligation to continue to fund support and other payments set forth in the commercial agreement between the partners.

Barnes & Noble is also buying out Microsoft’s stake in Nook Media.

When the partnership was formed in 2012, the idea was that [company]Microsoft[/company] would help finance Nook’s international expansion and that Nook apps and content would be loaded onto Windows devices, thus ridding Microsoft of the need to create its own digital content stores. There were even rumors that Microsoft might be interested in buying [company]Barnes & Noble[/company]. Fast forward a couple years: Nook’s international expansion never took off (though it made it to the UK) and Barnes & Noble is struggling with its own tablet strategy.

Now for those bad earnings: Barnes & Noble revenues were down 2.7 percent for the quarter ended November 1, 2014, to $1.7 billion. Nook revenues — including devices, accessories and digital content sales — were down a whopping 41.3 percent for the quarter, to $64 million. Retail sales, including bookstores and BN.com, were $888 million, down 3.6 percent compared to last year — a decrease “primarily attributable to lower sales of Nook products [they are sold in Barnes & Noble stores, as the picture illustrating this post shows], leading to a comparable store sales decline of 1.5 percent for the quarter, as well as store closures.”

Barnes & Noble is holding an investor call at 10 a.m. ET and I will be on the call.