Tagged: retail

A 3D-capable Amazon phone might signal the next wave in retail

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.com

Image courtesy of Steve Jurvetson/Flickr.com

Interesting times for Amazon. Especially in the hardware space. First we get the surprise launch of their new set-top box, the Fire TV, now rumours are spreading of an imminent smartphone from the retail giant.

Not that this rumour is new, per se. We’ve been hearing speculation about an Amazon phone almost as long as we’ve been hearing about an HDTV from Apple. But this time, the rumour comes with a new level of specificity at least as it relates to a key tech spec: the handset will supposedly ship with a quad set of cameras that will enable a retina-tracking, glasses-free, 3D display.

Let’s assume for the time being that this phone, if real, will be a logical stable-mate to the existing Kindle Fire line of tablets. This would mean Amazon’s proprietary fork of Android and access to all of Amazon’s streaming services. Certainly not a bad set of specs. Especially if they include access to the Fire TV’s game store.

Frankly, if this was all there was to this rumoured handset, the right price would make it a very popular choice. Amazon’s tablets have received very favourable reviews and it seems likely that an Amazon phone would fare equally well.

But I’m troubled by the 3D aspect of the report. I know that movie studios continue to flog 3D on all of their mega-budget releases as a way of luring audiences to theatrical releases (with the correspondingly over-priced tickets). Some people even choose 3D over 2D when given the choice. Not me. I’m completely over 3D. Most of the time my brain becomes so accustomed to the effect that 20 minutes into the movie the only thing I’m noticing is the glasses on my face and the darker picture on the screen (non-3D movies are noticeably brighter).

As for home 3D? Fugedaboudit.
Even if we owned a 3D TV I doubt we’d ever use the 3D part. My neighbour, who is as big a movie buff as you’re likely to find, never uses his TV’s 3D capability. I suspect he’s far from an outlier on that count.

Which brings us back to why Amazon would choose to include 3D on a handset, especially when others have tried (and failed) to market one successfully.

The most obvious reason is that they want to enable traditional 3D content, i.e. movies and games. Nintendo has enjoyed relative success with their 3DS line of hand-held game consoles and those who have them assure me that the 3D part is really enjoyable (I’ll have to take their word for it).

But there may be a secondary element to Amazon’s 3D strategy: retail. Though I’ve never felt that the current model of multiple-angle images in gallery format was insufficient when looking at products online, perhaps Amazon wants to take the virtual shopping experience to the next level by giving shoppers a more immersive and realistic view of catalog items.

Could such an evolution in the display of retail objects (or indeed any objects) be a game-changer? My instinct is to say “no” purely based on my lacklustre experiences with 3D in other contexts. But I underestimated how profoundly popular having an “iPod Touch on steroids” would be when the iPad was first released, so I’m willing to concede that the experience of 3D shopping might be one of those things you need to see, before rendering judgment.

What are your thoughts on a 3D phone from Amazon?

 

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Amazon doesn’t need bricks and mortar, it just needs a better app

If you’ve never heard of the word “showrooming,” you might not be aware of one of the most fundamental shifts in retail. Heck, you might even have showroomed and not even known you were doing it.

Here’s how to tell: If you’ve ever been in a store and pulled out your smartphone to see if another retailer or online store has the product you’re looking at for a better price, you’re a showroomer. It’s a growing trend and it has retailers rightfully worried.

The biggest benefactor of showrooming is Amazon.com. eBay, Kijiji and Craigslist pick up a lot of business this way too, but the sheer size of Amazon’s catalog paired with a high degree of customer loyalty means they win.

You’d think that the company would be doing whatever it could to facilitate showrooming. The most obvious way to do so would be to create iOS and Android apps that let you scan the UPC barcode of the product in question, to trigger a quick lookup on Amazon’s website. What could be easier? Companies like CNET have had this functionality built-in to their apps for years.

And yet, rumour has it that Amazon has bricks and mortar ambitions of their own.

Now while I have tremendous respect for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his team, this strategy – if indeed real – seems out of sync with the company’s strengths. Considering that the company only makes a single product line – their highly successful Kindle readers and tablets – they aren’t in the same game as Apple, Microsoft or even Google who arguably have strong reasons to give consumers a physical place to experience their products.

Would these rumoured stores be a new take on the book-seller? That also seems odd. Let’s face it, if they simply added a barcode scanner to their Kindle app, every single bookstore on the planet would become an Amazon bookstore. Prefer e-reading? Buy the book immediately and have it delivered to your chosen device before you can pass by the physical cash register on your way out. Want a physical copy? You’ll probably get a better price on that too.

The current belief is that these stores will sell high-end devices like laptops and tablets in addition to Amazon’s own Kindle line.

If this is true, Amazon might need to watch their backs…. Showrooming could just as easily turn the tables on them too.

Update, Feb 21: Well lookee here… Amazon.ca announces new shopping apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Phone. I guess that dollar store crystal ball I bought might be working better than I thought ;-)

Image credit: LuxuryLuke via Flickr.com

Apple stores get smarter

Last week, the buzz was significant. Rumours were flying around concerning what Apple was planning for the 10th anniversary of its first retail store. Some suspected Apple might suprise us with the next iPhone, while others guessed at a massive re-design of the stores themselves.

Today, if you had walked into any Apple store in Canada or the U.S. the world you would have seen the change right before your eyes. And yet, unless you were very familiar with Apple’s usual merchandising, you might have missed it completely.

The clean, wood-veneered tabletops which display the latest gear from Cupertino, now include something new to look at: The Smart Sign.

An Apple Store Smart Sign displaying the details of their 27-inch iMac. Note the 'Specialist' button at the bottom right of the screen.

In effect, the Smart Sign is nothing more than an iPad 2 encased in a lucite block, giving you access to the touch screen and the home button, but nothing else. On the iPad’s screen runs a single app. The app is programmed to give shoppers more information on the product they’re looking at, be it an iPhone, iPod or yes, even an iPad. The concept is bindingly simple, and not even original: select restaurants have been using iPads to enhance the meal and drink ordering routine almost since the device’s debut a year ago.

What makes Apple’s implementation of the Smart Sign different is the way the app is tied into the rest of the Apple Store systems. One of the buttons that is always available at the bottom of the app’s interface is labeled “Specialist.” Tapping this button gives you the option to immediately add yourself to a queue to speak face-to-face with one of the stores many associates. Think of it like that flight attendant button you used to see in every airplane. Except, in this case, when you press the flight attendant button, it tells you where in the queue you are.

Behind the scenes, the store’s system then behaves like taxi dispatch service, sending out a message to the store associates via their customized iPod Touches which dangle around their necks. Associates can then accept the call, at which point the system shows them where in the store the requested originated.

Once you see the whole system in action, you can’t help but wonder, is Apple merely using their own stores as a test-bed for new retails technology before rolling out a similar offering to other retailers, big and small? If you ask an Apple associate they’ll simply smile politely and tell you they have no knowledge of Apple’s plans for the future of Smart Signs. But you can tell they’ve been thinking the same thing. By the way, in case you were thinking you might just buy a bunch of iPads and download the Smart Sign app… sorry, it’s an Apple-only app… for now.

An Apple Store associate helps a customer setup his new iPhone 4 at the Personal Setup table

The Smart Sign wasn’t the only improvement Apple stores received this week. They’ve also added a new section – well actually two tabletops – dedicated to a service called “Personal Setup.” It isn’t much to look at. Just a table with a few MacBook Airs tethered to it. But this is where a store associate will take your brand new Apple purchase out of its box and get you up and running on it so you don’t have to spend your first minutes with your new device all alone. The tech-savvy amongst us might very well mock the need for such a service, but it’s really handy even if you do know exactly what you’re doing. It turns out I got a sneak preview of Personal Setup when I bought my iPad last year. When I left the store, my brand new tablet was already synced with my Apple account and I was able to surf, watch YouTube and anything else I wanted to do. Normally, I would have had to do this sync myself at home on my PC. For a device like an iPad or iPod, it’s not a huge time-saver, but imagine going home with an iMac that had already been configured for you by an expert. Now stop chuckling and imagine you’re someone who has hardly ever used a computer, let alone a Mac running OS X. Ah, now you get it :-)

So while neither the Smart Sign nor the Personal Setup are nearly as exciting as say a new iPhone or a brand new addition to the Apple ecosystem, today’s Apple store enhancements might well prove to be yet another way in which Apple has set a standard to which others will one day hold themselves.