How does Tesco's 'sat-nav' Android app work - and what can other retailers learn?

Tesco aims to expand its mobile services to become a multi-channel retailer and is currently trialling an Android-only ‘sat-nav’ app in a store in Essex, which helps customers locate products.
A blog post from Tesco provides some clues to how the company is making it all work.
Tesco has data about where different grocery products are located in its UK branches, which is used for its Tesco Finder app.

Interestingly, the non-public pilot app is only available on Android devices because, “Only Android easily offers the ability to install apps from ‘unknown sources’.” It’s a good example of a large organisation opting to use Android’s open platform for research and development innovations over, for example, Apple’s locked down approach.

Solving loss of GPS signal

The firm gets aisle and shelf location spatial data from software that creates planograms and draws aisles on the screen via the Finder app.

But, as Tesco points out, customers lose GPS signal as soon as they enter Tesco stores.

Tesco has lots of Wi-Fi wireless network access points in its stores. Using unique Media Access Control (MAC) addresses associated with each access point, signal data can read by mobile phones without having to make a connection.

The Tesco API tells the mobile device where all the access points are in relation to the store map, including the MAC addresses.

Using in-built GPS services, the mobile devices can measure the wireless signal strengths from MAC address. The Tesco Finder app works out where it is on the map.

Infrastructure changes

Tesco admitted it still had a problem with radio waves, which would be reflected and absorbed by packaging materials and products on the shelves. It’s unclear how they’ve solved this to provide a downloadable app.

 “If we crack this, it means that we can provide in-store ‘satnav’ style help with zero change in the infrastructure,” said Nick Lansley in a blog post in October 2010.

However, in May 2011, Lansley said in a blog post, “The system involves a lot of infrastructure installation in the stores so we need to get all kinds of people involved in thinking about the customer experience.”

An infrastructure installation sounds potentially expensive.

Although, with all the developments in mobile payments and the Google Wallet, perhaps retailers are due an overhaul of POS systems to support contactless payments – and ‘satnav’ style services?

What can other retailers learn so far?

–    It’s important to describe store layouts in as few characters of data as possible to keep the amount of data transferred down and meet data plan limits. Tesco did this by updating its API server interface to make the spatial/map data available in as few characters as possible

–    The ‘sat nav’ app could be used to alert customers of products on special offer when they are close to them.  A recent YouGov survey showed retailers are failing to meet customer demands for real-time mobile services and offers. Finding new ways to target customers via mobile devices will be crucial to remain competitive.