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Tech Lab

Shopkick app draws traditional retailers

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / June 30, 2011

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A trip to the mall? No thanks. They’re too loud and too costly. Better to stay home and shop online.

What’s that? You’ll pay me to go to the mall? Well, that’s another story. Indeed, it’s the business model behind Shopkick, one of the most interesting shopping apps around. Available for free for Apple Inc.’s iPhones or for phones running Google Inc.’s Android operating system, Shopkick is a different kind of shopping loyalty service. Lots of us carry a plastic loyalty card that earns extra discounts at a favorite supermarket. Shopkick uses smartphone technology to keep track of your visits to many different retailers. Through Shopkick, the store can offer you special discounts that flash on your smartphone screen. But Shopkick also tempts you with benefit points, called “kicks,’’ that you get just for visiting the store, even if you don’t spend a dime.

The idea is to retrain Internet-savvy shoppers to spend more time and money at brick-and-mortar stores. That’s a traditional retailer’s dream, which is why so many major companies have bought into the Shopkick system, including Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Sears, Home Depot, Stop & Shop, and lots more.

One of Shopkick’s coolest features is based on some delightfully geeky technology. Drop in at Best Buy with the Shopkick app running on your phone. Walk through the door and wait for a few seconds. With a happy little jingle, the phone informs you that you’ve gotten 60 kicks just for crossing the threshold.

GPS signals usually won’t penetrate buildings, so how does it know where you are? Shopkick has persuaded Best Buy and other merchants to install a network of small speakers that broadcast high-frequency sound, the kind that’s too high-pitched for human ears. I don’t know whether dogs can hear it, but the microphone in a smartphone can pick it up. The sound tells the Shopkick app that you’re inside the local Best Buy, and so you get your reward. You can collect kicks this way once a day, so Shopkick gives users a reason for return visits.

The app uses the same location technology to reward you for wandering the aisles. For example, if you walk to the Best Buy video game department, you get 20 kicks, and 20 more for strolling over to digital imaging. The ultrasonic system is precise enough to track you as you go.

I learned about Shopkick from a local tech executive who confidently told me that its ultrasonic location technology wouldn’t work. Actually, it does, though not perfectly. On one visit, a stroll to the imaging department produced no points. But overall, it’s surprisingly effective.

You can get more kicks with help from the phone’s camera. Just scan the bar codes of certain items. Sometimes getting rewards this way requires making a purchase. For instance, at the 16 Simon Malls in Massachusetts, such as the South Shore Plaza in Braintree, you can get 200 kicks by purchasing an American Express gift card, then scanning its bar code.

But many such offers cost nothing. For instance, at Best Buy I picked up 10 kicks just for scanning the bar code on a Hewlett-Packard Co. inkjet printer; at Target, I got a bunch more by scanning the new Lego Pirates of the Caribbean video game. Such offers are designed to turn shopping into a sort of treasure hunt, where you enter stores you might otherwise never visit, and check out items you didn’t think you’d want.

Again, the technology can stumble; Shopkick requires a decent cellphone signal, and that can sometimes be a problem in malls. The Target at South Shore Plaza is in the basement; after scanning an item, I had to run to the front door to collect kicks.

Collect enough kicks, and you can turn them in for a variety of goodies. I’m still trying to get up to 400; that will entitle me to a $25 gift certificate from Restaurant.com. Other offers include gift cards from various retailers, movie tickets, or my favorite: a round-the-world cruise for a mere 6,250,000 kicks.

Shopkick’s not quite tempting enough to turn me into a mall rat. But I could see firing it up during my routine visits to Stop & Shop, where I picked up a few kicks just by scanning a package of string cheese. And if you’re already a habitual shopper, now you can get paid for it.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.