Abigail Klein Leichman
July 5, 2012

Bricks-and-mortar shopping across the globe is about to be transformed into a personalized experience, thanks to a first-of-a-kind app unveiled by Israel’s IBM Research earlier this week.

Inside a store, consumers will download the app on their smartphone or tablet, register and create a profile of features that matter to them — anything from ingredients to packaging to price. Then they’ll point the device’s video camera at merchandise, and the app’s augmented reality technology will instantly recognize and send images of products fitting their parameters.

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Looking for a low-sugar, high-fiber breakfast cereal that’s on sale today? Sweep your camera across the cereal shelves in your local market, and the app will highlight your best choices, along with special discounts. All details are superimposed on your screen.

Haifa-based Sima Nadler, who heads worldwide retail research for IBM, tells ISRAEL21c that the company is planning in-market experiments with its prototype app in partnership with “several large customers” she could not yet name.

The app was conceived last summer at the IBM Research Lab in Haifa, one of several IBM facilities in Israel.

“We had a team with expertise in image processing that had worked in other industries, and we brainstormed about potential applications of their skills,” Nadler explains. The parent company enthusiastically approved and funded the development process for this new pilot technology.

We like to shop in stores

Despite the popularity of online shopping, 92 percent of retail activity takes place in bricks-and-mortar stores, and 58% of consumers say they want to get product information in the store. IBM’s revolutionary mobile app will give in-person customers the same wealth of product details they get when shopping on the Internet.

For retailers, the new app will serve as a platform to interact with customers at the point when purchasing decisions are made. The technology will allow them to suggest up-sell and cross-sell offers in the store, while gaining invaluable insights that can help optimize floor plans and product displays.

“I can see myself using it,” says Nadler, who immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1986.

“I often feel the frustration of sitting at my desk looking on the Web at lots of information about a product – I can even see what my friends think of the product — but in a physical store I’m much more limited.”

Several existing apps give users product information through the item’s stock-keeping unit (SKU) code, and 19% of US consumers already browse their mobile devices for product info while shopping in a store. However, the new app is much more advanced and effortless, Nadler says.

“It’s laborious to enter a specific SKU on a mobile device. Here I don’t even have to scan a barcode. I can just scan the shelf and the things I’m interested in are automatically marked.”

IBM Smarter Commerce software does the work of overlaying digital details on the images — ingredients, price, reviews and discounts that apply that day.

Sima Nadler of IBM Haifa.
Sima Nadler of IBM Haifa.

Consumers can even choose to integrate product information from their social networks into the information stream — for instance, a comment or review posted by a friend on Facebook.

Coming soon from the Haifa lab

Nadler reveals that her researchers in Haifa have several other projects in the pipeline in the same area.

“We’re dong a lot of work merging the physical and virtual shopping experience, such as making it easier to understand who’s in the physical space, what their browsing trends are and being able to interact with them in real time. That doesn’t exist today,” she says.

“We also have a lot [of projects] in smarter commerce in general, such as analytics about sentiment in the market toward products, brands and attributes of specific products.”

IBM has R&D facilities in Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem in addition to the Haifa lab. Together they employ more than 1,000 Israelis.

“What’s unique about our research team is that we have people using their expertise from completely different areas of industry and technology, such as the image processing expertise we’re leveraging for retail,” says Nadler, who came to IBM Research six years ago from the telecom industry.

“Also, we’re a very global and multicultural population here, and that helps in terms of understanding a broad range of customers and languages. Here in Israel we don’t have a large market, but our focus is the global lab.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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