Wallets and ground shipping may soon be a thing of the past if tech companies have their way.
Spurred by advancements in consumer services such as 3D printing and mobile payments, the retail industry is on the cusp of some major changes and companies are doing their best to push out the old methods to make way for the new. Capturing the attention of college students may give many the foothold they are looking for.
College towns are the perfect environments to launch industry-changing products — largely in part to college students’ tendency to be early adopters of up-and-coming technology, said Doug Hardman, CEO of SparkBase, which specializes in software for powers loyalty rewards programs and gift cards.
Some companies are hoping that mobile technologies like Google Wallet (left) will revolutionize the way consumers purchase goods.
SparkBase rolled out Paycloud — its mobile rewards app aimed at small, local businesses — in 2011. Aimed at helping consumers ditch key rings full of rewards cards, the app connects users directly with the business’ deals as soon as they walk in the door.
“We have all of these plastic cards in our wallets, but no good way to aggregate them and make them easier to use,” Hardman said. “This technology simplifies the payment process and allows businesses to cut through all the clutter and directly reach the consumer.”
Using Paycloud is as simple as walking into a local store or restaurant, waving your smartphone at the countertop sensor to check in and then redeeming personalized rewards on your favorite products.
Cupcake shops, personal trainers, farmers-market vendors, doctor’s offices — an increasingly diverse mix of businesses are making the switch to mobile payment as the benefits of the process become more well known.
“This sort of technology benefits both sides involved,” Hardman said. “Over time it tells the merchant how valuable the consumer is to the business while generating better rewards for the consumer by tracking buying habits.”
Monster companies like Apple are brewing up their own payment schemes while others like PayPal and Google are already edging into the marketplace.
This shift in purchasing is exactly what Twitter creator Jack Dorsey had in mind when he founded his mobile-payment company, Square, in 2011.
Dorsey designed a compact credit-card swiping device that connects directly to smartphones or tablets. Now accepting Square payments are Starbucks (which is also a major investor in the company) and Blue Bottle Coffee, as well as an army of small businesses that enjoy the service’s low maintenance and transparent costs.
In November, Square announced that it was processing $10 billion a year in payments.
Square currently offers two main services: Square Register, its app for businesses, and Square Wallet, an app for consumers. Square launched Business in a Box this week, an all-in-one pack that allows anyone with an iPad to turn the Register app into a real cash register.
Square Wallet allows customers to pay hands-free by simply saying their name at checkout, having the cashier confirm their picture ID on the screen and receiving an electronic receipt.
So far, college students have used the product both as customers and as a way to collect payments for small-business transactions, said Square spokeswoman Faryl Ury.
“Square offers a fun, cool way to pay and a better overall purchasing experience,” Ury said. “It helps provide vendors with a stronger relationship with their customers in a way that is high-tech, but also practical.”
Another market disruptor is the rise of personal 3D printing machines.
Exposure to computer-aided design machines was mostly limited to engineering programs and industrial designers until 2007, when expiring patents opened the door for a new line of personal manufacturing machines and software. Companies such as MakerBot are helping to bring 3D-print technology to thousands of new households, with predictions that the 3D market will reach $3.7 billion by 2015, according to consulting firm Wohlers Associates.
College students like Max Friefeld, co-founder of 3D design marketplace Layer by Layer, have already aligned themselves to take advantage of the upcoming 3D-manufacturing trend.
“We are right on the verge of 3D printing becoming a mainstream reality,” Friefeld said. “Once these machines become a staple in the everyday consumer’s home, people will be able to browse products online, select the ones they like, hit print and watch it being made right in front of them.”
Layer by Layer’s goal is to help put the power of manufacturing in consumers’ hands while giving designers the ability to upload designs without losing control of their intellectual property.
Friefeld said he has already seen the product used to manufacture everything from iPhone cases to watches to board games, and he hopes Layer by Layer will encourage even more designs when it launches in March.
For now, commercial 3D printing only works with a few dozen materials, mostly metals and plastics, but researchers are working to expand the offering.
The concept of self-manufacturing could help spur the next industrial revolution, giving hobbyists, designers and doctors a chance to prototype and produce a wide-range of objects, Friefeld said. Even more software development opportunities loom as another wave of patents are set to expire in the next five years.
“We like the saying that this is one of the closest things out there to teleportation,” Friefeld said. “By sending a design file over the Internet and manufacturing it at home, the industry is making things much more efficient than shipping products thousands of miles.”
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