Aisle411 launches today. As we've written previously, this iPhone app will locate items for you inside a store. Can't find the rice flour? The pipe wrench you need? An employee to help you find what you're looking for? Aisle411 is building databases of what's where in large retail stores.
Unfortunately, GPS and even in-building Wi-Fi geolocation isn't accurate enough to direct a user's phone directly to an item in a store, so Aisle411 is landmark-based. It'll tell you what aisle your desired item is in and which section. CEO Nathan Pettyjohn told me the app will take you to within about 4 feet of any item. From there it's up to you.
The service first will roll out in a few grocery stores in San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Jose, Calif., with more cities to follow. The company has been building systems to integrate with store stocking systems to keep its maps up to date. Unfortunately, it does not tie in to inventory systems. So users may still have experiences like the one I had with a clerk at the Whole Foods the other day: "Well, this is where the pine nuts would be. If we had them in stock. Sorry."
Pettyjohn says that when Aisle411 can get its hooks into a store's various inventory and logistics systems, it can provide extremely high accuracy on what's where. But even without integration, it can be helpful. Big retail chain stores have some design similarities, so combining chain generalizations with a rough map of the aisles and sections in a particular location can still make for a useful production location database. The app will also work in a few big hardware stores at launch, but these stores are only authorizing the app, not providing the deep hooks into their systems the way the initial grocery store partners are.
Revenues will come from an in-app coupon system and brand advertising; this is also the model of shopping list app, Grocery IQ, a potential partner. The company may also sell aggregate shopper behavior and analytics data to stores.
It's a useful idea, but unfortunately the team couldn't leave well enough alone, and it looks like they're jumping on the gamification and geolocation bandwagon in a way that will fuzz up the real utility of the service. The app will provide game mechanics along these lines, says Pettyjohn: "Say you're searching for bananas in a store. We might pop up a monkey badge." Also, if you're a frequent shopper at a location, you can become the "captain" of a store. Finally, you'll be able to Tweet, text, email, or Facebook your in-store finds to your friends. Pettyjohn has been studying Shopkick, clearly, but I do believe there's a big emotional engagement difference between shopping for gadgets and apparel (mainstays of Shopkick) and following a shopping list for groceries or hardware.
However, shoppers' helper apps, whether they're time savers like this one, social like Foursquare, or game-based like Shopkick, all exist because there's real money to be made by connecting offers from retailers with consumers in stores. If Aisle411 wants to dub me Captain Banana when I ask it to help me find something in the fruit aisle, I suppose that's not too steep a price to pay.