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OMG Pokémon Go: Retailers, Pay Attention

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I first heard about, but dismissed, Pokémon Go on July 5th, the day the app launched in the US. My children both asked me for the game that afternoon, which I confess I said yes to without even looking at the game because it’s Pokémon, right? Cute, cuddly, with an emphasis on training and working hard.

And then this weekend, I lost my children. They left with friends in the morning on Saturday and did not return until late that afternoon, sweaty and triumphant – “I’m a level 5! ” my daughter proudly proclaimed. And then they ditched me again – and their chores – on Sunday. Sunday evening, my friend Leti, who is also the mother of twins the same age as my son (and his best friends), insisted that I download the app and go with them to hunt Pokémon.

In case you’ve been living off-planet for the last week, Pokemon Go is a mobile app-based game that combines real-world maps and walking, augmented reality, and interactive play. That’s a fancy way of saying, you walk around in the real world, catch virtual Pokémon in an AR setting, and train and battle at virtual world gyms in real-world locations. If you want to learn more about it, you pretty much only have to type “po ” in your Google search bar and you’ll find plenty.

We left at 8pm – still light in Denver – and headed to the nearest park. There were 5 kids, and Leti and myself as the 2 adults. As we headed down the street, phones out (it’s kind of a requirement to play), we passed two people walking back from the park, also phones out. They laughed and waved – that phone in hand with screen on is a dead giveaway that you are playing Pokémon Go.

When we got to the park, there were no kidding at least thirty people there with phones out, mostly in small groups. The park I went to – Plum Valley Park in Highlands Ranch – has a Gym as well as 3 Pokéstops (have no idea what I’m talking about? Google it). So that made it a pretty popular place. As our group marched across the soccer field to reach the Pokéstop at the far side, a man with his phone out stopped the kids and asked them to explain the game and how it worked, which of course they enthusiastically did.

And then, as we were walking out of the park, we were met by a man, phone out, who saw our phones and immediately demanded to know if we were Red Team or Blue Team (the local Gym is currently owned by Red Team). We answered Red, to which he nodded his head. “Good. ” I was relieved – for a moment the whole Augmented Reality thing looked like it might’ve headed in a too-real direction if we’d answered the wrong color.

I capped off my own in-depth experience with a trip to the local mall (Park Meadows in Lonetree, CO), where I’m guessing about a third of the foot traffic in that mall on a sleepy Monday afternoon was Pokémon Go traffic. Yeah, a third. And hey! I’m a level 6 now!

There are plenty of articles out there already about gameplay and how the AR works, etc. etc. And there are probably a lot of local stores shooting queries up the chain about what the heck all these people are doing standing in their parking lot looking at their phones. But what does Pokémon Go really mean for retailers?

I’ve got two angles: The immediate question of whether all these people will mean anything to them, and the bigger question of what makes Pokémon Go so compelling, and what retailers can learn from that for their own customer engagement.

Immediate Actions

I don’t think there is as much good news here as I’ve been seeing in the press, even for food service. When I was at the mall, alternating between heads-down trying to spot and capture Pokémon and heads-up trying to spot all the other people around me who were also trying to capture Pokémon, I could’ve honestly been walking down any aisle, alley, street, or sidewalk. I saw nothing else. It took all of my concentration to not run into anything or anyone while either watching my screen or watching other people watch their screens. Window displays, sale signs, enticing offers – forget it. I saw less product in that mall in the hour I was there than I would see watching paint dry. So sure, the game drives traffic – no doubt about that. Will it turn traffic into shoppers and shoppers into buyers? Not a chance.

However, I do think there are a few opportunities here. If I were Gamestop or Best Buy, I’d be falling all over myself to figure out how to put a Pokéstop in front of all my stores, hopped up with a lure. And I would have someone standing out front (a sign wouldn’t be enough to catch phone-obsessed Pokémon trainers) offering water bottles to the people who show up – free if they’re members of my loyalty program. “Hey, if you’re a Gamestop member, you can come inside and get a free water, ice cold. Oh, you’re not a member? It’s really easy to join. If you like gaming, you’ll love what we have. “

Food service DOES stand a chance to capitalize on hungry, thirsty trainers who set out not realizing how far they’d go. But that was last weekend. Provided they’re not all too sore and tired from wandering town over the last week, trainers can easily wise up and remember to bring water and a snack next time. So I don’t think that will last forever either.

Another opportunity would be to acknowledge this new community of people who are near or in your stores. Word travels fast in this community. If you give away something small and delighting – a snack, a Pokémon card, something like that – and do it in a way that acknowledges only the people “in the know ” about the app or visibly using the app, you’re tapping into part of what makes the game so attractive – being one of droves of people who are partaking in a not-so-secret but still “special ” community activity. That’s where some restaurants have done a better job, throwing Pokémon parties and the like. You want to build good will and engagement? Acknowledge that community, and delight them, so that when their phone batteries are dead, maybe they’ll come back and give you a real shot.

Long Term Lessons

Here’s where I think the lessons learned are going to be far more important than however retailers manage to capitalize on this crazy fad.

First of all, is it a trend or is it a fad? It’s way too early to tell, but there are some warning signs that Pokémon Go could turn into a fad. Monday afternoon at the mall, my app crashed or froze no less than 8 times in an hour, and that’s not counting at least 15 minutes where I gave up for awhile. The overwhelming popularity and success of the app is also the seed of its downfall – if it gets too annoying to play the game, trust me, I have better things to do with my time.

Lesson for retailers: don’t make engagement hard or have lots of hoops. If you make it too hard to participate – like, create an account before you can look around the app, and oh yeah sign up for our emails and by the way take our site experience survey, or alternatively, your app is slow or buggy – people will just leave.

Also, it’s clear the Go app is version 1.0. For example, once you accept what you want your avatar to look like, that’s it. You can’t change it. Ever. At least at the moment. This is one thing I think the game designers need to fix quickly, as it offers both an opportunity to keep people engaged and it offers an opportunity to turn stardust (points, basically) into real dollars – as people spend real world money to gain in-world items. Also, there should be options for interactivity. If I’m with a group of friends out hunting Pokémon, why can’t I see their avatars on my screen too? Another thing to fix. The app has been out for barely a week as of this publication. Those are two big enhancements to add to a list that probably already includes some glitches, like, if you want to give up hunting a Pokémon, you have to back out and close the app completely (thus essentially rebooting it) in order to stop the hunt. If Niantic, the game’s creators, want to keep people interested, they are going to need to add new functionality (and fix the old stuff) in a hurry, like as soon as humanly possible.

And that’s a valuable lesson for retailers too: customer engagement is never “finished “. You can create the best app in the world – or in-store experience, or website, or whatever else. But if you don’t have a strategy in place to keep evolving it, continuously, as fast as you possibly can, you’re sunk. People’s attention just isn’t that long. If the casual Go users of today get bored, the phenomenon that is Pokémon Go will be over – back to the nerdy dedicated trainers that already follow everything Pokémon. That’s the difference between a property worth billions, and one worth only millions. The same holds true for customer engagement. Of any kind.

Last lesson for retailers, at least for today: gamification works. People are out there obsessing over “catching them all “. The positive feedback of the little stars around your pokeball can be addicting – as we can all see. Retailers have many places in their business where the power of gamification can be leveraged – in employee training, in customer loyalty programs. The rewards of Go are simple, but they’re powerful. Wouldn’t any retailer like to have this level of addiction with their own apps? Especially if that addiction converts to spending real dollars?

There are probably more lessons to be learned out there. We’re only in week one of what is clearly a phenomenon. But in the meantime retailers should definitely be paying attention. Anything that can bring a shopper to a store is worth paying attention to, these days.

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Newsletter Articles July 12, 2016
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