Mobile commerce technology continues to change the way we purchase goods and services. Though smartphones and tablets are proliferating and capturing the imagination of consumers, as an industry,we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of their potential impact on merchants. That’s because of the inherent technological limitations of legacy point-of-sale units in hundreds of thousands of retail locations—many have even grown obsolete yet are still in service.

In the device-driven world of consumers, new software and applications appear every day that are redefining the shopping experience. Those products create a more personalized and more customizable environment that opens up the shopping experience to countless creative possibilities, and enables us, as a unified market, to shop, share, and make purchases in ways that we, as diverse consumers, would prefer,.

Yet, still, that’s only one side of the coin. While interest and investment remain strong and consistent on the consumer side, the reality is, without a merchant force that is ready, willing, and able to participate in the mobile economy—if not step up and altogether drive it—the growth of mobile commerce can only go so far. That is precisely the dynamic we see in play today.

While consumers are armed with mobile products and applications, little progress had been made in refining the point-of-sale system, and its readiness to engage in more substantial and lifestyle-enhancing ways with customers through the power of mobile technology. That’s not to say that POS systems don’t accept mobile payments; many do, and those offerings are becoming more pervasive, easier-to-manage, and are gaining market traction. What is missing are POS systems that support the multitude of m-commerce features that provoke and sustain a deeper and more interactive customer engagement. Take technologies like couponing, location-based offers, and merchant-centric, mobile-based social interaction tools, especially when integrated with strong analytics capabilities. While lauded for their potential, and their “pop and sizzle,” on a macro level, those technologies are rendered essentially useless, because most legacy POS infrastructures are not ‘mobile-ready’ enough to leverage these tools to their fullest.

Some POS providers and merchants might counter that mobile commerce technologies are sometimes too complicated and cumbersome to generate a tangible return—and return significant enough to justify the capital investment required. To some degree, that concern is understandable. Almost all mobile commerce platforms are piecemeal offerings that require a skilled and determined IT department to ensure effective integration with the point-of-sale. Most POS platforms prove limited in capability. For example, it’s virtually impossible for consumers and merchants to interact productively at point-of-sale over existing wireless networks. It’s as if retail locations become ‘dead zones,’ where communication, service, and, more importantly, profitability can all slip into a black hole.

Much like the technical evolution we continue to witness on the consumer side, a whole new era of technological innovation is about to explode for merchants—and not a moment too soon. Among the most prominent emerging approaches are new beaconing technologies, which enable direct merchant/consumer communication and interaction in the store. Using a variant of Bluetooth, beacons deliver enable merchants to incorporate detailed analytics and location-based services to identify customers, trigger relevant offers, and transact sales—all occurring directly with, and through, the consumer’s mobile device. Where legacy cellular technology fell short in supporting true customer engagement tactics in-store, beaconing represents a quantum leap forward in individualized interaction with mobile phones and tablets. Many technology providers, like Apple, have already expressed their intentions to support beaconing. We can expect to see a wider rollout of this new technology this Fall.

Further down the road, but no less promising, is the development of Personal Point of Sale technology, which may become the ultimate expression of mobile commerce: placing the point-of-sale right in the consumers’ purse or pocket, embedded on their smartphone or tablet. It reimagines the whole notion of shopping, by presenting a new model with purchasing possibilities at brick-n-mortar merchants expanded and enhanced in ways we could only previously dream of.

When consumers are soon carrying a pPOS-embedded mobile device wherever they go, they will be able to make purchases directly from a display window, or from the pages of a newspaper or magazine, or even during a TV commercial, all by scanning a product tag. They’ll be able to learn more about what they’re purchasing, see if stock is available, retrieve installation or user guides, perform actual self-checkout, have the product set up for delivery, and download a receipt onto the device. What’s the best part? Through pPOS, customers never have to hunt down a busy or hard-to-find sales clerk. Not only can they truly help themselves, but also, when the point-of-sale is perpetually located at the consumer’s fingertips, virtually every sale can be conducted as easily as an “impulse sale.”

For nearly 10 years, mobile commerce innovation has been centered on the device, as well as its apps, and how consumers might use such innovative tools to improve everyday experiences. While there’s no denying the impact this has had on our society, it is equally true that the merchant side of the m-commerce equation has remained, for the most part, unprepared to engage the mobile-enabled consumer.

But that situation is changing for the better. The potential benefits of these technologies are just the tip of the iceberg for consumers and, most notably, for merchants, as well. Beaconing and pPOS solutions change the game by enabling merchants to dive right into the mobile commerce world and present relevant offers, incentives, and services that can follow consumers wherever they are. Beaconing transforms the brick-and-mortar store into a living, breathing, mobile-centric, customer-focused environment that doesn’t hinge on the availability of in-store staff or even in-stock merchandise.

So, if a jacket is no longer available in black on the rack, the customer can order it on-the-spot via her mobile device. Meanwhile, the merchant — who is already aware of this customer’s presence through beaconing, and knows her preferences through mobile marketing analytics—can entice her into an add-on sale of matching gloves through an instant offer. In that way, pPOS can transcend the walls of brick-n-mortar stores to automate and enhance the whole consumer/merchant dynamic in perpetual, personalized ways.

The time has come for the POS to become a mobile-centric platform.

Bill Clark is CEO of Spindle. Reach him at bclark@spindle.com.

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