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Analysis: What will Apple's indoor mapping mean for retail design?


Apple’s iOS 11 release this month includes an update to its Maps feature that could influence the way consumers navigate shopping malls.

Included in the Apple Maps app for the first time are detailed floor plans for hundreds of retail destinations, enabling users to identify on which floor of a shopping centre their chosen store is located, or to narrow down their choice of shop by category.

There are indoor maps of multiple major shopping centres and transport hubs, including Heathrow Airport, and Apple is confident many more businesses will provide internal layout information in the months ahead.

One global retail real estate company instantly impacted by this move is US-based Simon Property Group. Earlier this year it partnered with indoor GPS and wayfinding company MappedIn to digitise its mall layouts – and a selection of these now automatically appear on Apple Maps, as well as on its own websites and apps.

Patrick Flanagan, vice president of digital marketing & strategy at the property firm, says the property company is excited to work with Apple to provide indoor mapping services in its Simon Malls, Simon Mills and Simon Premium Outlets across North America.

“Helping our shoppers find and navigate our shopping centres, in as frictionless a manner as possible, is an ongoing priority,” he explains.

“This offers yet another great option for Simon shoppers to be able to easily determine if the store they are interested in is located at their desired Simon shopping centre, to quickly find the best entrance... and then ultimately generate an optimal wayfinding route to get to their desired destination.”

New direction of travel

Google has offered internal mapping services for a number of years, and to a certain extent this month’s news is a case of Apple playing catch-up in terms of map functionality. But the iOS 11 update is relevant in terms of the future direction of travel for retail. Many more retailers are invested in the Apple ecosystem, and the advances in its technology could support multiple new customer propositions.

Mappedin CEO and founder, HongWei Liu, notes: “A digital map is a vital component of modern stores.

“Digital user experience features such as search, exploration, recommendations, and augmented reality (AR) are based on the physical layouts that maps represent. Additionally, back office operations like planning, stocking, proximity advertising, and analysis will always involve maps as tools.”

So, perhaps the most significant retail impact of the Apple Maps evolution lies in the additional services it can now support, as opposed to the mapping functionality per se. If retailers choose to share their indoor layouts with companies such as MappedIn or directly with Apple, and then plug in Apple Maps to their own mobile apps, there will be an opportunity to better understand in-store customer behaviour.

The technology now exists for retailers to use this data to target shoppers with personalised promotions on their smartphones while in a store. As reported, French grocer Carrefour has trialled an in-app service that allows shoppers to receive directions, via their mobiles, to promotions in a store – often linked to individual preferences.

Will new mapping features impact store design?

Kelly White, London general manager of tech firm WWT Asynchrony Labs, says the ability for customers to pinpoint stores location will improve retailers’ customer traffic mapping accuracy.

“This will have important implications for retailers, who can adapt store layouts to this data to create a more intuitive experience for consumers, ultimately maximising revenue,” she notes.

But Miya Knights, head of global retail technology practice at Planet Retail RNG, says it is unlikely there will be any radical changes to store design as a result of advancements in store mapping technology.

The best retailers, she says, will use data they garner from it alongside other footfall monitoring technologies to “tweak store design and layout” in line with how their customers shop. She also sees potential in the mapping functionality to help customers in retail stores where assortments and ranges change regularly.

But Knights does view the Apple initiative as “a foundation” on which the customer experience in retail can be enhanced. “It is an absolutely essential pre-cursor to bringing AR into buildings,” she says. “The Apple Maps connection with the AR layer over the top could bring in some really immersive experiences that are going to gamify shopping.”

Apple itself has not been heavily promoting this new capability – most of its focus has been on the launch of the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X models, and more day-to-day features.

The wider technology community, however, has been keen to talk up the mapping changes. That is arguably due to the opportunity it now provides for a range of future innovations in retail and other consumer-facing markets.

“The exciting thing could be allying it with artificial intelligence to ensure personalised offers pop up at the the shelf edge or when customers look at mannequins – it might be used to encourage them to seek out the latest fashions in the store,” Knights explains.

“It might enable consumers to upload photographs to apps that then navigate them to relevant ranges based on that image. A huge number of things are coming together – indoor mapping, visual search, AR – and we’re on the cusp of having these things at a commercially-ready level, so retailers should start thinking about using them in stores.”