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Walgreens Connects Fit-Tech And Rewards — And Boosts Location Sharing In The Process

At CES, Walgreens' Adam Kmiec talked about the initiative that lets users earn points by walking — and hinted at the company's plans for omnichannel expansion.

From AR innovations inspired in part by Pokémon Go to panels on the “connected consumer” experience, location-based apps remained a hot topic at CES 2017.

Investment in location tech isn’t new. But for Walgreens, the change in the conversation over the past year is a shift toward prioritizing location as an essential part of the mobile experience itself — rather than something that consumers must be coerced into sharing in exchange for future deals or benefits.

“My favorite example of [location’s utility], in a Walgreens context, is that you can earn balance reward points just by walking,” said Adam Kmiec, Sr. Director, Mobile, Social, Content & Performance Marketing at Walgreens. “That’s all you have to do: walk. Everything you’re doing already, you actually earn free points on. You just have to connect your device, like a Fitbit, to Walgreen balance rewards, and then all of a sudden, we get that data.”

As part of our CES series in partnership with Kinetic, Kmiec talked to GeoMarketing about providing utility through mobile — and the company’s plans for omnichannel initiatives beyond the Walgreens app.

What trends are of interest to you at CES, and how might they impact what technology you implement at Walgreens in the coming year? 

I feel like CES has really changed over the years. Ten years ago, it was very much about tech and electronics. You launched your TV, you launched your phone, your camera. It’s actually been an interesting change; I’d say probably over the last three years, it has evolved such that there’s so much more benefit to the marketer now.

When I come to CES, I’m looking at three really specific things. First: I want to know what’s right around the corner. I probably have a pretty good hunch of what I think is [coming,] but I want to see if all the people and companies I’m connecting with [appear] to validate that or not.

Second: What’s the thing I’ve missed? One of those things was drones, for example; they went from being something [perceived] as a toy to an invention with true impact. And the third is, I really look for CES to be something that I walk away from feeling re-inspired. For that reason, I actually like walking down Startup Alley more than anything.

[Those takeaways] will impact how we think of the technology space over the next year. For me, that’s what CES is all about.

In the past year, Walgreens has rolled out beacons and made app updates aimed at engaging consumers in real time. How are you engaging the always-on” mobile user, and what’s top of mind for you going into 2017?

I do believe that, as a company, you’re always running a race. Not just against the competition, but against the consumer. Sometimes the consumer is gonna be far out ahead; sometimes you’re so far ahead of where the consumer is going to be, that you have to be cautious in how you implement [technology] or how you start to scale.

You mentioned beacons. We were actually one of the first retailers out there with beacons, years ago, in [some] Duane Reade locations. Beacons are one of those things where you’re sort of waiting for that, “Ah-ha,” inflection point — where the consumer is going to almost demand, and expect, “where’s my [in-store] communication coming from?” At the same time, what that allows us to do is to test. Test smartly, and test in a really controlled environment.

If I could probably point to anything, in the last 12 months, as a theme for us, it has been that inflection point of customer experience. What I love about it is this: It stops you from thinking about the technology. It stops you from thinking about the marketing. It stops you from thinking about the design. Instead, it gets you to think about all those things coming together at the perfect moment that you want to deliver that amazing experience. Like for any customer who’s ever walked in, used Android Pay or Apple Pay in the store, and it just works — that’s how those experiences should be.

I’m hopeful that, at some point, beacons or similar technology that allow that type of precision messaging will become more commonplace.

Creating that type of experiences is inherently based on location and location sharing. Over the past year, apps from Uber to Pokémon GO have shown customers that location can be a baked-in part of the app experience. Where are we, in terms of the “inflection point” you mentioned, with location? Are we to the point where sharing location with businesses in exchange for better service isn’t viewed as “creepy?”

I think that’s a great word for it; there’s a fine balance between helpful and creepy. I think of location’s [utility] like this: If you open up an app like Yelp and you say, “show me a great sushi restaurant,” and it were to show you one, hypothetically, thirty miles away — not so helpful. But if it shows you one that’s 150 feet from you and, “Oh, by the way, 17 of your friends been there and think it’s the most amazing thing,” then that’s a really important element to the equation.

I think there many ways in which location naturally benefits a consumer. Where to eat is one, right? I think the challenge in going be: When I start asking for permission to access location, is it actually going to be seen as valuable for the consumer?

The answer to that is going to be different by experience, by industry, by device. If you remember at the very beginnings of Pokémon, some people were concerned that it was asking for all this information in your Google Profile. But ultimately, the answer was, “it’s okay,” or “I really don’t care. I just want to play Pokémon Go.” The benefit [of sharing] was clear.

My favorite example of that [utility], in a Walgreens context, is that you can earn balance reward points just by walking. That’s all you have to do: walk. Everything you’re doing already, you actually earn free points on. You just have to connect your device, like a Fitbit, to Walgreen balance rewards, and all of a sudden, we get that data. The best part about that is, if you’re a Walgreens customer, you’re getting points just for doing the things you’re already doing that are healthier. It’s a no-brainer, right? There’s an inherit value there in saying, “Hey, Walgreens wants access to your steps data.”

Right. It’s similar with Uber; you have to share your location or the car can’t pick you up. It’s about creating experiences that have location as a part of them inherently, right?

Right. Also, I do believe that, as a marketer, I’m also still a consumer. I’m a dad to two. My kids are nine and seven. Things like privacy, location, data sharing, are all things on top of my mind just as a dad.

At Walgreens, I walk into these types of discussions ready to apply three filters. In thinking about trying something or implementing new technology, we ask, “Would we? Could we? And, finally, should we?” I think that makes us take the right amount of pause. It says, “Does this add to the experience? Does this make someone love us more than they already love a Walgreens? Does it bring us closer to the customer? Does it let us help the customer in a more meaningful way?”

But would we, could we, should we? Is a great sort of model for not just always jumping into a bright shiny object. At the same time, it’s a great cattle prod. It says, “Gosh, yeah. We could do this. We should do this. We absolutely would do this. We should be doing this right now. Let’s go make it happen.” It’s a great way to sort of evaluate what you bring to the marketplace.

So, once you decide that you should do something, how do you drive awareness of those initiatives? For example, connecting your Fitbit to earn Walgreens reward points — how are you driving awareness of adoption of these kind of things?

Well, I think ten years ago you would have had to make a choice: Do I invest [marketing spend] in telling someone about the fact that you can chat live with a doctor in the Walgreens app, using telemedicine? Or talking about the fact that you could order photo prints right now, in the Walgreens app and pick them up at the store?

In the age of programmatic, I can segment that; I can do both. There are people who shop with us — who come in intentionally for coupon clipping — but then end up leaving with photo prints. Then there are people who are coming to us because they need to refill a prescription, and that’s all they’re in there for in terms of that prescription. I think that’s an important element that can’t be, and shouldn’t be, forgotten. Not every message is appropriate for every consumer segment. I think it’s less about making a choice, and more about making sure that the right message is getting to the right consumer.

As we wrap up CES, do you have any digital initiatives coming up Q1 or Q2 this year that you can talk about?

I think what you’re going to see from us, in calendar year Q1, is our continued belief that mobile isn’t just the app. I think that’s a really big emphasis within the organization. If you’re going to be a a mobile first organization, the app is critical, no doubt about it. But there are so many other things that go beyond the app. I think you’re gonna see some really interesting things in Q1 and Q2 that extend our continued success in mobile in a more innovative way.