How Pikachu destroyed Amazon and revived regular old retail

Pickachu vs Amazon

It’s official.  Old-school online is dead.  Staring at a computer screen and surfing from your couch is a thing of the past.  Here’s how I know.  Grown men and women chasing imaginary monsters on a computer screen is lame.  Grown men and women chasing imaginary monsters around Manhattan is cool.  The masses have spoken.  Of course, I don’t think it’s too cool when I’m walking behind someone with his face in his phone and he stops all of a sudden to flick Poké balls at Charmander, but that’s the augmented reality we now live in.

I went a little overboard on the title.  But millions of people from all walks of life are playing Pokémon Go and this little game may just mark the start of a golden age of augmented reality (AR) that could very well stop the steady decline of sales at traditional bricks-and-mortar retail.  More on that later.  First, a Pokémon primer for the handful of people that don’t know what the craze is all about.

I, myself, am not a Pokémon Go master, so I’ll try not to screw this up. The little I do know about the game has been explained to me by interns at the office who rearrange their lunch plans to “catch ’em all”.  You see, there are these little Japanese monsters – the most popular of which is a little yellow electric rabbit with rosy cheeks called Pikachu – that roam the real world.  You can only see the monsters if you have the Pokémon Go app (developed by Niantic) on your phone.  Using the app and the camera on your phone, you walk around in real space on what amounts to a worldwide scavenger hunt for these little guys (some are more rare than others).  Then you pit your Pokémon posse in fights against another player’s posse to win control of Pokémon gyms which have been set up at real-world landmarks.  You get prizes and points for playing.  Did I do a good job at explaining?  No?  Ok.  Here’s another blog that claims to have “everything you need to know”.  Go there for more info.

Now, Pokémon Go itself could very well be just a fad.  But this isn’t just about Go, it is about how that game finally thrust AR into the mainstream.  This is about how the AR in Pokémon Go got your pasty pal to peel himself off the couch, step out into the sun, and happily and unknowingly walk a marathon last week.  Here are three ways traditional retailers (those not named Amazon) might take advantage of AR like Pokémon Go and the excitement it creates:

1. Get them through the door.  I’ve been told there’s this magical virtual powder called incense that attracts Pokémon to specific locations.  Because it attracts Pokémon, it tends to attract actual real-life humans beings.  Could a retailer use such alchemy to drive traffic?  The answer is YES, according to Bloomberg.  Small shops around the country are already doing it.  But these are smaller mom-and-pop shops.  Is there anything stopping Target, for example, from loading up on the stuff and making it rain all over menswear at 1000s of locations at once?  I’ll have to consult with the interns on this.  I’m not sure if there’s an unlimited supply.

2. Make shopping an event.  McDonald’s has already set up an agreement with Niantic to turn its 3000 restaurants in Japan into Pokémon gyms.  Other retailers could take it much further and set up battle arenas in their store, making an event out of shopping to attract customers.  They could offer up real merchandise for the Pokémon masters that win the gym and great deals for the crowds of adoring fans.

3. Give them bragging rights.  You know those rewards cards that give you exclusive discounts on stuff?  Pffft discounts.  We don’t want no stinking’ discounts.  We want to be able to rub our friends’ noses in our success.  Retailers could partner with Pokémon Go or apps like it to promise loyal customers like you a shot at ultra-rare, maybe even limited time only monsters that roam only their stores, making you the envy of your friends, giving you final bragging rights.  It could go something like this… Earn 50 loyalty points and unlock the ability to capture the ultra-rare and unbeatable Battle-Armor Pikachu *.

These are just three of countless ways traditional retail can capitalize on an AR app like Pokémon Go at the expense of online-only retail.  I thought of these myself without even really thinking that hard.  Then I discovered others with much more influence over things already had the almost the same ideas.  It’s not rocket science and that’s the point.

Even though this technology has been around for a while, app developers have only scratched the surface of what’s possible and, with Pokémon Go, AR has only just now gone mainstream.  Go figure, a game made it happen.  The best thing about it, with AR you actually have to go places and interact with real things to unearth the virtual nuggets.  This takes it well out of Amazon’s reach and, for once, gives an advantage to retailers that actually have physical stores.  In many ways it runs completely contrary to the Amazon model, which seeks to maximize convenience so you never have to leave your house… ever (see Drones!).

I’m expecting retailers to get really creative around AR in the next few years.  And given more time to noodle, they’ll be much more creative than the little bit I talked about here.  This may not destroy Amazon (no one really wants that), but it will be a big crack in the armor of online-only retail.  Bet on it.

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* Battle-armor Pikachu does not exist in the Pokémon Go app and can only be captured in my head space.

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