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The annual National Retail Federation convention and expo is up and running at New York’s Javits Center, and during the trade show chip maker Intel is showing off a strategy to bring in retailers as clients for their chips, taken out of PCs and applied to a new generation of store technologies. I spoke with Joe Jensen, general manager of Intel’s Embedded Computing Division, on the company’s latest offerings for the retail industry: low-energy, high-performance chips (which can save more than 70% power usage of previous processors) that can fuel point-of-sale displays (information kiosks, cash registers) in stores from grocers to luxury boutiques.
With retailers increasingly reporting disappointing sales, laying off employees, and shutting stores, Intel’s goal of selling money-saving displays could appeal to struggling retail corporations could be timely.
Jensen told me that his team at Intel “started with the realization that existing point-of-sale, or P.O.S., systems consume tremendous amounts of power. They run 24 hours a day even if the store is closed, or a sales clerk isn’t using it.” This was in February 2008. Jensen said the embedded computing experts realized that this could be an opportunity to design a more “green” solution that could save retailers money and open up a new market for Intel. (Not to mention further position Intel as a company dedicated to sustainability.)
“We started to work on some stuff in the lab, to come up with dramatic ideas. We realized we needed to catch retailers’ and shoppers’ attention. While the idea was to help retailers save money, we also wanted to help them entice people into the stores,” Jensen said.
“We realized that one way of doing so was to create a kiosk that could offer a shopping experience that was similar to shopping online, to offer that kind of convenience. And it needed to be physically interesting and compelling.”
So he turned to frog, a design firm headquartered in San Francisco, to do user research and come up with an exciting prototype for such a display. Here’s a rendering, below. It’s sleek and unobtrusive:
Frog has a long history of successful design consulting, having worked with Hewlett Packard, GE, Disney, Microsoft, and countless others. It was the first time Intel's embedded computing division team worked with frog.
I also spoke with Katie Dell, a design analyst at frog, who said that the team looked at all types of retail situations and talked not only to customers, but IT staff and other behind-the-scenes people. They discovered that at some department stores, there would be as many as 40 cash registers plugged in all day and night, sucking away energy even when not being used, draining electricity--and adding to utility bills.
The research also helped the frog and Intel team to suggest ways that stores who might buy such a point-of-sale display as their prototype could also use it for money- and time-saving tasks as integrating inventory efficiently, or for marketing daily specials via digital signage. The frog team also came up with the idea of allowing shoppers to search inventory directly or with a sales person in real time, and to enter and peruse customer reviews from the store—in essence, matching the online shopping experience in a cool kiosk.
Howard Nuk, a creative director at frog who specializes in industrial design, also told me that the display is modular, meaning retailers could customize it.
The rendering I’ve posted and the real-world demo on view at the NRF convention represent a concept. When I asked Jensen if a goal was to automate the in-store shopping experience, he said that the idea was absolutely not to eliminate salespeople. He concluded with an anecdote from his own life as a consumer:
“Once, my wife had the experience of a truly fantastic sales clerk, who knew exactly what she wanted and who was very attentive,” Jensen said. “So we continue to shop in that store all the time. We always ask ourselves, why isn’t the shopping experience always like that? We hope this [display concept] will raise all clerks’ level of service.”
What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.