Learnings and ramblings from Pokemon Go

Essential Retail’s Caroline Baldwin asks whether retailers can learn anything from Pokemon Go, or if they should just let their customers have fun without jumping on the bandwagon.

It’s been less than two weeks since Pokemon Go launched in Australia, New Zealand and the US, shortly followed by the UK on the 14th of July. But in that time, the free augmented reality (AR) mobile game has smashed records and topped app charts around the developed world.

Within hours it was clear Pokemon Go was a sure-fire hit, playing on the nostalgia from the ’90s, when the franchise introduced the anime characters to school playgrounds in the form of trading cards. So of course, along came the commentary and analysis on what businesses could learn from the latest social phenomenon.

But I’m not so sure retailers have much to learn from Pokemon Go. Firstly, at Essential Retail, I’ve lost count of the number of times the industry has told retailers to be agile and launch innovations as soon as possible, testing as they go, in order to not be left behind in the fast-paced world of technology. Nintendo practically ignored the launch of smartphones, waiting almost a decade to launch Pokemon Go on mobile. While the game is a clear success, this is not the attitude the retail industry can afford to take – unless they have a cute, yellow mascot by the name of Pikachu to use as their secret weapon.

When it comes to how retailers should react to the social phenomenon which quickly snowballed across continents, it firstly proves retailers need to be nimble and react fast, whether it’s to the latest iPhone launch with a new payment capability or a scattering of virtual creates around your town – you won’t have weeks to develop your marketing strategy to respond to new technologies. Heck, while some retailers are still working out what a Pokestop is, enterprising criminals caught on very fast and are waiting to mug players as they walk by.

A number of retailers have already been experimenting with using the app to encourage shoppers into their stores. The premise of the game sees players trying to catch as many Pokemon as possible, and using the smartphone’s camera and AR gamers have to walk around the real world to spot them. Some savvy retailers have purchased ‘lures’ to entice digital Pokemon to their stores, in the hope to improve footfall.

But for me, this seems more desperate than clever. Even more so when I’ve spotted several photos shared on social media of signs in shop and café windows stating: “Pokemon are for paying customers only”. Are you really going to lure a rare Vaporean into your store and make potential customers buy something in order to catch it?

The thing that bugs me is how much of the expert commentary on how businesses can jump on the band wagon have been around marketing, but I haven’t seen anything ingenious as yet. And as more vendors and analysts offer their business advice on Pokemon Go, I see my gamer-journalist friends tweet their disgust. “Is nothing sacred?” they ask. Clearly not.

While I’m really excited to see a fantastic use of AR (finally!), Pokemon Go is still a game, which I have no doubt will be the app of 2016. What I hope Pokemon Go will do is popularise AR, because it hasn’t really taken off yet.  Retailers and brands have been experimenting with AR for marketing initiatives for years, but there have only be a handful of examples of really clever use by retailers – Rimmel’s AR makeup app, for instance.

So retailers, take note. Pokemon Go has proven that customers are ready for intelligent AR experiences on their mobile, just don’t go all Nintendo and take a decade to create them.

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