How Qualcomm Wants to Reinvent Retail

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master-qc-logo_pms_negIn Qualcomm’s company cafe, Perks, there’s no need to pull out your wallet — or even, make an order. Employees simply ask for “the usual,” and a barista will serve up their favorite drink, and charge their account without even swiping a card.

It’s the type of technology that the chip maker wants to bring to venues and retail locations across the U.S., largely through the company’s emerging proximity marketing and retail tech division, Qualcomm Retail Solutions. The division works with retailers and other venue owners to put the company’s two positioning technologies, Gimbal and iZat, to use, designing and implementing in-store marketing, analytics and other proximity-driven programs.

Street Fight recently caught up with Kevin Hunter, senior director of product management for Qualcomm Retail Solutions, to talk about the explosion in retail technology, the emerging technology driving innovation, and what the introduction of mobile will mean for the existing retail landscape.

The retail division works with a number of positioning technologies. How do you see GPS, wi-fi positioning and analytics, and Bluetooth LE technologies fitting together?
It depends on the customer and the environment. We have wi-fi indoor positioning as well, and it helps customers who makes investment in wi-fi and other location technologies to take advantage of that indoor positioning component. Where Beacon tech is complimentary is it can fill in the gaps where wi-fi may leave off. It also has the potential to be a bit more passive and a bit more secure. What we’re seeing is, depending on the venue or retailer, they can use either one or both to give the best engagement within their venues. It’s not either/or but it’s a great compliment to one another.

There’s a tendency among technology press to paint a picture of the technology landscape as a zero-sum game. Is there room for both Bluetooth and NFC to coexist in the connected retail environment?
When we look at the use case for Bluetooth LE, and the beacon ecosystem in general, one of the big advantages is that it does scale upwards. You can reach folks at up to 100-200 feet and as close as the NFC-type tap, so it gives you a long range of use case for the technology.

NFC definitely has its purposes — its been used a lot in the payment areas. But the combination of the two can be very interesting, especially if you’re looking to combine customer engagement and payments into a single platform. We believe both technologies have a place in the future of retail..

The system the division built for the company cafe, Perks, sounds a lot like what a Square or CRM system might provide. Are those areas where Qualcomm might enter?
The Gimbal technology and platform actually started in Qualcomm labs to serve a very broad set of use-cases. The retail and venue spaces were very interesting early on, so we brought the technology from labs to retail solutions. But there’s a bunch of other lifestyle use cases that are still out there.

So does that mean the company could move into payments and other adjacent industries?
We’re trying to provide that digital to physical bridge. Qualcomm is a mobile company, and we’re ecosystem builders so we want to make sure that retailers are taking advantage of this mobile evolution. So we will partner to make that happen.

If you think about what’s been going on from an ecommerce or omni-channel standpoint, the dataset we’re providing from in-store are very similar the ones the ecommerce guys have on the web. It’s not as much an education, as it is an understanding that they can get the same datasets about same customer base at the venue as on the web.

We’ve seen companies like Uber use mobile to rapidly disrupt existing industries. Is mobile a sustaining or disruptive innovation in retail?
It can be both. It depends if the existing players see mobile as an opportunity for them to innovate. In general, mobile has opened a lot of room for innovation in the market, especially around location. It’s bringing a lot of new people to the table, and allowing them to take advantage of a new type of connectivity inside of retail. Mobile transforms so many different industries, but all of the parts of the ecosystem are really coming together so it allows mobile to be that bridge moving forward.

With new technologies, the risks often overshadows the reward for large brands. What do your retailers need to know first when considering rolling out an indoor positioning and proximity marketing system?
It first starts with privacy. You have a trusted brand, and you have a trusted relationship with your customer, and what’s important to us is to make sure we do not put that at risk. One of the things we did early on was work with Trusty to figure out the best approach to integrating this technology into an existing app.

What we landed on is to have an opt-in arrangement, in which there’s a clear understanding with your customer of what the value exchange can be, and how to turn that off later. It’s very important for us that our partners adhere to that privacy strategy. That’s the biggest challenge — making sure they get it right from the get go. Others have tried to do the reverse and it’s backfired on them.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.