ISU professor predicts 2007 will be the year of advanced mobile commerce

AMES, Iowa -- In the futuristic movie "Minority Report," people had their retinas scanned as they entered large public spaces and received customized shopping information about special deals and products through holographic images.

That may be pure science fiction, but Iowa State University management information systems professor Anthony Townsend believes it's only a matter of time before tech-savvy entrepreneurs find a way to provide customized electronic messages to shoppers as they enter a store. A co-author of the book "Information Technology and the World of Work" (Transaction Publishers, 2004), Townsend theorizes that all the purchasing data that's been collected on shoppers could make in-store mobile commerce customization a reality in the not-too-distant future.

"It's taking that past purchasing information and tying it to the customers while they're actually in the store shopping," said Townsend, who has researched the future of mobile commerce. "There has been the strategy of customer relationship management (CRM) for some time, but this is actually dynamic customer relations management.

"The problem in the store is that there's no customer touch point for merchants. That's the big challenge to the merging of personal communications technology and CRM," he said.

Townsend says there's no current technology linking a customer's purchasing history to his or her specific interests during the shopping experience. Businesses have increasingly tried to attract consumers to their stores through e-mails and even cell phone text messages offering news about specials and products of interest. They've also been providing regular shoppers special key rings with bar codes that are scanned to offer discounts and product information at the register as they make their purchases.

"A rapidly evolving technique on the part of merchants involves creating 'check in' specials that bring customers habitually to their web site to look for daily deals," said Townsend. " has exploited this technique into an entire business model. What's great about this is that the customer becomes an information-seeker and is voluntarily involved in the contact. It's very different and much more attractive than spam and spam-like email notices."

But Townsend sees more advanced mobile commerce becoming the business buzz in 2007.

"As a merchant, the question becomes, 'What can I do to figure out that someone is in my store, and then attach that to past purchasing information so we can get him to buy?'" he said. "It's making the physical shopping experience a buying experience."

Townsend theorizes that this future strategy might involve a form of customer recognition as a person enters the store or mall. The shopper would then receive a special cell phone text message or advertisement on a PDA. Another strategy might direct shoppers to visit customer service computer terminals, so they can scan a bar code and receive customized deals and information before they shop. Still another technique might use a radio frequency ID to identify a customer in the store. That would provide customized information to store clerks so that they could better serve that specific customer's shopping needs.

While retina scans and holographic images are still the stuff of Hollywood, Townsend points out that reality may be moving in that direction -- with thumb print scans already being used in some grocery stores as a way to automatically debit a person's bank account for a sale. He will conduct research in January on thumb print technology and how it can become more attractive to consumers.

And who knows? Maybe some day soon thumb scans will allow merchants to be more "in touch" with their customers' specific needs. Townsend believes that day could be coming to a store near you soon.