get closer to the digital customer with NFC

While all eyes have been on the ups and downs of contactless payment, NFC could instead become a very useful tool for helping retailers get closer to their customers. With near-field communications, you have to be really close – the smart card or mobile phone needs to be within a few centimeters to make a connection. Rather than a hindrance, this proximity could be a boon to retailer.

To understand the benefits of NFC to retail, let’s first look at what the bricks and mortar companies generally don’t have: any idea who their customers are.

With the aid of cookies and registered accounts, online retailers already build a picture of who their customers are. They know what you searched for, when you dump your shopping basket without completing the purchase, and that if you like singer A, that you may also like singer B. Unless you choose to opt out of digital life, you leave a footprint (which is why you sometimes see ads for products you have already bought – it’s called remarketing).

Bricks and mortar retailers typically don’t have this knowledge of customers, unless they were operating a sophisticated video surveillance and facial recognition system when people enter their store. But then this would be quite illegal.

When a customer comes into a shopping mall store or out-of-town retail park, they are anonymous unless they hand over their credit card. Browsers come into the store, kick the tyres and perhaps leave without buying what they came for. Was it just window shopping or did they compare prices on their iPhone and find it cheaper online? Perhaps they could not find a retail assistant to answer vital questions such as “does it come in black?"

NFC could be a really useful tool for keeping customers in the store, giving them enough information and encouraging them through the purchase pipeline. NFC could make the shopping experience more enjoyable.

Touching an NFC-enabled handset onto the reader next to a product display brings the bricks and mortar world into the online. Offers based on your profile or previous purchases or even online searches can be presented to you there and then. “As you have already spent $1000 with us this year, we can offer you this printer at 20% discount.” Obviously you need the business intelligence to conceive and execute these rules, but the NFC plays an important part in declaring that the customer is present and interested in this product.

NFC can also deliver a rich layer of content directly to the store visitor without them needing to find it online, for instance independent reviews of the printer, costs of print cartridges, similar models and price comparison.

Furthermore, the data built up from thousands of customer interactions with in-store NFC readers during the course of the day can tell the retailer what products are most interesting but not being bought – is it to do with cost, performance or poor merchandising?

There is wave of retailers who are exploring the role NFC could play in the retail experience. These include:

  • A shopping centre in Solihull, UK is piloting an NFC service that lets shoppers access discounts and promotions from multiple retailers by tapping their phone against NFC-enabled posters displayed in the windows of participating stores.
  • Swiss online fashion store is using NFC to identify shoppers and deliver personalized offers at its first shop in Neuchatel, Switzerland. Customer tap their NFC phone or loyalty card against a virtual shopping screen which will then display the customer’s personal profile along with promotions based on their shopping history as well as information stored in their online Heidi profile.
  • Billboard and outdoor advertising giant Clear Channel Outdoor is to equip 75,000 advertising sites in 23 countries with programmable NFC tags and QR codes. By installing them at sites with “heavy footfall and long dwell-time” i.e. a bus stop, commuters may be encouraged to touch the reader to get offers from the retailer that is currently being advertised.
  • Bon-Ton department stores in the US are using NFC to make it easier to buy those shiny gold strappy sandals you’ve been promising yourself. Touching NFC-handsets onto the soles of shoes will reveal what sizes and colours are in stock or where the nearest store your preferred pair can be found.
  • French supermarket giant Carrefour has opened a store equipped with 55,000 NFC shelf-edge labels that let consumers interact with products. Shoppers can also make NFC payments at the point of sale with contactless terminals.
  • UK retail giant Argos is conducting an NFC trial in 40 stores. Shoppers can tap their NFC smartphones to engage with store staff wearing NFC-enabled lanyards and have the latest offers sent to their device. Customers can also tap NFC in-store cards to download the Argos mobile app. Argos installed more than 88,000 tags for the pilot.
  • Fruit and veg distributor Total Produce is to provide consumers with access to videos, recipes, interactive games and content about the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet via NFC tag and QR code-equipped SmartStands located in supermarkets and convenience stores.

It's fair to say the most retailers are more interested in contactless payment with NFC, but they would be wise to explore the wider possibilities of the technology unless they are happy to continue to lose customers to online.


image © Tyler Olson -


Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.