Location-enabling Your Grocery Store: Indoor Positioning Locates Your Favorite Peanut Butter and More

By Joe Francica

Malls, grocery stores and other indoor venues are being mapped and indoor positioning systems will help shoppers find not only store locations but products and promotions. Point Inside is helping mall developers, retailers and their customers with indoor positioning solutions. Brian Wilson, vice president of marketing, gives us the details on positioning accuracy, how each venue is mapped and how they can find products at the "shelf-level." The company recently launched a service with Meijer Stores in the Midwest and has already mapped many malls. This interview with Brian Wilson, Point Inside's vice president of marketing, gives more details.

Directions Magazine (DM): Let's start with the basics. What methods are you employing to support indoor positioning for shoppers at grocery stores or malls? What level of positioning accuracy are you able to provide once a search is initiated?

Brian Wilson (BW): When we're privy to the locations of Wi-Fi access points in a venue we'll map those and provide the locations to Skyhook, Google and Apple for inclusion in their databases. Once propagated through their systems, users' locations reported by the handset should reflect the greater accuracy provided by the additional nodes. We expect accuracy to generally be in the 5-30 meter range. And when we say generally, we're really looking at 68% (i.e. 1-sigma) of the time.

DM: You've mapped quite a few malls and store locations. Can you provide some background information on how you created these maps?

BW: Our internal team creates each map. We've created a proprietary software tool that allows us, after gathering point of interest (POI) and other data about the space, to rapidly produce a geospatially accurate map of the defined geography. Also note the mapping tool does not limit us to indoor venues; we could just as easily map a theme park or college campus, et cetera. The proprietary processes we've established and tool we use are trade secrets, with patents pending, so I'm not able to say more than that. Suffice to say that with a very small team we are creating maps at a very rapid pace.

DM: Were mall developers willing to provide their engineering or CAD drawings in order for you to have very accurate drawings of the buildings? Do you intend to create 3D models and BIMs from any drawings you obtain?

BW: We're working with some mall developers who are providing their maps (in some cases CAD drawings, in others, just plain block diagram maps or lease maps). However, our system does not necessarily require that we have precise, detailed floor plan maps as a starting point for creating our maps. In some cases we start with nothing. As for 3D models or 3D BIMs, we're adding OGC compliant modeling to our tool set and expect to publish our first GML formatted venue shortly.

DM: Generally, grocery stores follow very similar layouts from store to store. Have you been able to simply replicate a store floor map throughout a given retailer's chain? What modifications, if any, do you have to make between stores?

BW: Although there are often many similarities in the basic floor plans for a given retailer, so far we've found there are generally enough subtleties between locations to warrant individual mapping efforts. Department layouts are often driven by a store-specific planogram system, and because it's important that we create an accurate representation of the space, we make the extra effort to make each map unique.

DM: Inside the store, planograms have become a science unto themselves. How do you incorporate planograms into your app or are you simply mapping the 2D location of any particular SKU?

BW: Planogram systems do have an accounting of the shelf or peg location where a product may reside, but user testing shows that mapping to that fidelity doesn't add enough value to warrant the additional POI overhead. An average large format retailer contains three to five thousand POIs. Adding the shelf or peg resolution increased that number to hundreds of thousands. We're currently working on an elegant solution to describe the Z axis in more detail and will add it to our offering if user testing proves there's a benefit.

DM: Are you able to map every SKU for each store?

BW: Since we're taking the data directly from the retailer's system, we're dependent to a great extent upon the quality of the data we receive (though we also have a process for "cleaning" and normalizing them). The short answer is: we're able to map every SKU that's made available to us. Note that our system can also deal with different granularities of information. For example, if a precise shelf location is not provided, but the item is categorized appropriately, we can still place it in the correct department on the map. This typically happens in clothing and shoe departments where several racks have rollers and are frequently moved to accommodate seasonal inventory fluctuations.

DM: Will you be, or are you now, using the phone's camera to support bar chart recognition in order to retrieve pricing information or number of units in stock?

BW: This capability was not included in the 1.0 Meijer Find-it launch, but it's a feature we've added to the roadmap, and we expect a partner to request it in the future. We'll be working with our partners to prioritize features on the product roadmap.

DM:  How do you intend to integrate location-based advertising from mall or store merchants, and will they offer electronic couponing as part of their Point Inside app?

BW: We currently have a Web-based "portal" for our retail and mall partners that allows them to create, schedule and publish mobile promotions and event information to the Point Inside application for malls and airports. This same infrastructure is being leveraged to publish weekly sale specials in the Meijer Find-it app. So, we're already offering this capability, though it's still early, and we haven't focused significant sales efforts in that area to-date.

DM: Can you tell us more about your business model? Do merchants pay you to map the store? Will you be involved in placing electronic ads, and is that a service you will offer?

BW: Our business model can be summarized below. Note that depending on the specific situation there might be any combination of up-front fees, per-use fees, revenue sharing, et cetera involved in the relationship. I'm not able to go into specific details regarding any particular arrangement at this time.

  1. Content Licensing - We make our map and POI (i.e. "destination") content available via an API to third-party developers for incorporation into their apps. For example, you could imagine how an airline might want to enhance its app by making detailed airport maps available to its customers.
  2. Platform Licensing - The Meijer app is an example of this. We create the specific venue maps, house the data and operate the system powering the app. In the Meijer case this includes product search and the serving of ads and promotions.
  3. Map Creation & Maintenance - We're working with some destination owners to create and maintain their digital maps.
  4. Advertising - As previously mentioned, we do offer retailers and malls the opportunity to publish promotions and event information (whether that be in-store events for retailers, or events managed by the mall to drive mall traffic) to the Point Inside application.

DM: Feel free to explain any additional aspects of the app that we have not covered.

BW: Rather than focus on a specific app, whether it be Meijer's Find-it or our own Point Inside for Airports and Malls, I think it's important to understand we're not "an app company." Our key strength is our ability to catalog and index data for geographically defined areas, marry those data to precise location information, and make them available to digital devices. What we're really selling is the capabilities of our Mobile Destination Content Platform. Our management team has very deep experience in LBS and positioning technologies; we've been a part of the industry from the beginning. We believe that by building this capability to associate the "what" to "where" in the untapped "gray space" of outdoor maps we'll be able to enable a variety of mobile services valuable to businesses and consumers alike. We're still very early in the evolution of these types of services, and we'll continue to evolve our platform's capabilities and work with other ecosystem players to facilitate even better consumer experiences. In other words, the Meijer Find-it app is just the beginning.

Published Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Written by Joe Francica

Published in

Location Intelligence

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