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Merchant Innovation

Is Paying Consumers For Their Time The Future Of Physical Retail?

Among the more famous aphorisms of Benjamin Franklin was his 1748 observation that “time is money” —  a fancy way of saying that making money requires the input of time, thus wasting time is wasting money. But it seems that despite being Swedish in origin, furniture and home goods seller IKEA appears to be taking a literal page from the American Founding Father’s playbook in the most literal ways possible.  According to recent reports, if customers will spend the time to come into the physical stores — IKEA is prepared to make it worth their while by paying them for the time.

“Before the birth of this campaign, we realized two things: time is precious today, and many loyal IKEA customers spend a significant chunk of it visiting our locations, which are sometimes away from the city centre (sic),” said an IKEA spokesperson. “We think it’s only right to reward our customers’ efforts by repaying them for the time spent reaching us.”

Dubbed “Buy With Your Time,” the program stems from the idea that IKEA outlets by design are often constructed a bit away from the beaten path and require extra effort and commitment on the customer’s part of the undertaking, commitment they ought to be rewarded for. Customers are rewarded “time currency” at the time of their checkout by using their Google Maps timeline to demonstrate precisely how far and long they have traveled to get to IKEA. That time currency can be put directly toward their purchase or it can be banked over time. And consumers can collect time currency at an IKEA checkout whether or not they purchase anything at all — the rewards come into play so long as the consumer has traveled to the location and can demonstrate they’ve done so with their smartphone.

And if you find yourself leaping to Google to figure out where the farthest IKEA you can drive to is, be warned. The Buy With Your Time program starting next month is only in effect at a single IKEA location in Dubai, timed to coincide with the opening of a new store in Jebel Ali. All prices in that store have been modified with an additional “time currency” price listing, which is based on the average Dubai salary. The program works on two levels to boost business. First, it gives locals a reason to continually return to IKEA for no other reason than to wrack up time currency. And, of course, being surrounded by all those fur pillows and easy to assemble coffee tables more often might convince consumers to buy a bit more than they might have otherwise, particularly with the added inducement of the time currency discount.

The big question, of course, is will it work? One gets the feeling that the run in a new store in Dubai might be something of a test drive for the global brand that has spent much of the last several years working overtime to update its largely brick-and-mortar operations for an increasingly omnichannel world.  In recent memory, IKEA has dabbled in experimental pop-up shops,  began building QR code-based mobile checkouts, invested in AR/VR technology, struck partnerships with big tech players like Apple and Google, nudged into the gig economy with Taskrabbit, bulked up its smart home selection, integrated artificial intelligence into many layers of its operations and began tinkering in new stores designed for an increasingly urban hub oriented world. And that is the just the short list of the headline makers since 2016 — IKEA has made a likely equally impactful, if more quiet, host of upgrades to its backend logistics, particularly around warehouse and eCommerce as it has sought to rebalance its operations in the face of a world where consumers are increasingly shopping for home furnishings and goods at least partially online.

And while not every effort has been a world-beating success, unlike many of its fellows in the world of brick-and-mortar retail, it certainly can not be said that IKEA has failed to be proactive in the face of a rapidly shifting commerce ecosystem.

Will time as money work in Dubai, and thus catch on perhaps as a global program to bring the shoppers back to stores? There are, of course, several unknowns hard to quantify before launch. To use the program, customers have to download Google Maps and willingly let Google track their movements so that they can prove they’ve earned their temporal currency. The first hurdle will be privacy and whether consumers easily sign that over in the hopes of capturing a reward. Given the relative ease with which consumers hand over email addresses and mobile numbers in return for discounts and coupons, we suspect this will not be a high hurdle.

And of course, there are also the unknowns around bad actors and how they will attempt to hack, crack and exploit a system that is offering a spendable form of temporal currency. Shoplifting, for example, is no longer a crime for bored teenagers, well organized and professional criminal gangs target physical retails to great effect.

“Organized retail crime continues to present a serious challenge to the retail industry,” National Retail Federation Vice President of Loss Prevention Bob Moraca said. “These criminal gangs are sophisticated.”

What sophisticated criminal gangs can do with a program like this one remains to be seen, but given the charming regularity with which rewards programs like these tend to combine with fraudsters to create unintended consequences for the retailers that launch them. Even if consumers love it, this program may not last if it turns out to be an excellent way for fraudsters to make off with ill-gotten throw pillows.

But, of course, there is also the possibility that it works and generates a lot of revenue and buzz for IKEA.  If that is the case, well, successful ideas in retail have a habit of being contagious. Perhaps someday soon getting a customer into a physical store won’t just be about offering a discount on the goods themselves, but actually slipping them a payment for coming in the door.

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