Macy's mobile app tackles local store search — and demonstrates why it's so difficult

We tested the app and couldn't get very far before it glitched — repeatedly.

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Can Macy's app tell you what's available at its flagship store?

Credit: Mike Strand, via Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0

Here's one of the most frustrating facts of IT life: Desired information exists in a database, but there are so many limitations on its use that it becomes almost pointless. Welcome to local inventory online.

Here's the goal, from the shopper's perspective. It's 8 p.m. and something breaks. Maybe it's a dress shirt, a chair, a mattress. The issue is time. You'll need to drive to the store in a matter of moments, so you need to instruct your mobile app, "Show me your chairs and limit what you show me to items that are in stock at this specific store." Most retailers approach this in the opposite way, saying, "You first find the specific item, and we will then tell you if it is available at that store."

Alas, that is a horrible way to do it. I tried this once with Walmart. A phone broke and I needed to get it replaced right away. I searched for phones and it displayed a huge variety. I would choose one and make all of the selections and it would tell me that it wasn't available at that store. And I'd do it again and again. I wanted to scream at the app, "Just show me what is available at that specific store. Clearly, your database knows that."

Macy's this month made the plunge by updating its iOS app. As it said in its iTunes description of the update: "Prefer to buy online & pick up in store? Now you can sort items by what’s available at a store near you."

That would be great news, if only it actually worked. (I know. Picky, picky.) Even better, it would be nice if Macy's had set up any support for the app. I called customer service, who didn't know about the app and who then transferred me to technical support. Tech support said they are trained only for site support and transferred me to what they said was the mobile group. The person who then answered that call — after another enjoyable hold period — transferred me again to another mobile group. And that person said she couldn't help, since she is only there for order entry. You don't do mobile tech support? "We're only trained to help you download the app."

She did offer to "check the manual," but added that it hadn't been updated in a while, certainly preceding the latest app update.

So I tried on my own. I searched for the item (shirt) and it displayed many results. The "sort by" and "filter by" options offered nothing about local stores. I narrowed the search to dress shirts. No help.

Someone suggested I limit the search to categories. The screen only displayed four categories and none were germane. I clicked on "Shop by category" and nothing happened. On a lark, I tried hitting the three lines near the top-left of the screen and then chose "Shop," followed by "Dress shirts." Nothing in "Sort by" but — drum roll, please — "Filter by" now had a "Pick-up in store" option.

Intuitive route this ain't, but we're not done yet. I chose "Pick-up in store" and was then prompted to choose a store. I chose the store, hit apply and was returned to a list of shirts. I chose one and when I scrolled down, it prompted me to "Select a store." Wait a second. I just did that. Wasn't it already showing me only items limited to that store? No matter. I chose the store again. It brought me to that product page and, yes, asked me again to choose the store. It was the ever-popular endless loop.

I don't mean to pick on Macy's, which actually has one of the industry's most sophisticated IT operations. But that proves the point. The idea of allowing shoppers to limit searches to what is available at a specific local store is challenging — very challenging.

First, the underlying local inventory map is itself very difficult. Do you assume that if that store were supposed to receive 120 widgets that it received that exact number? And that none have fallen off a forklift, been shoplifted or been misplaced by a customer? Right away, the system's belief that there are 20 widgets left on the shelf — its theory that you had 120 along with the fact that POS has registered that 100 have since been sold — is suspect.

Then there are the marketing psychology factors, such as "If we report that the item isn't in stock at the desired location, we're going to lose that sale. But can we make maybe 75% of those sales if we special order the item and can deliver it within two days?"

What is really at issue here, though, is an age-old conflict between e-commerce and in-store operations. Through many years of ill-thought-out bonuses and commission splits, many retail e-commerce and in-store executives see each other more as rivals than as colleagues. The idea that e-commerce (and, by extension, mobile) operations would focus on encouraging in-store sales is not one that takes hold easily. Frequent references to "customer-centric" notwithstanding, their thinking isn't even chain-centric. It's usually chain-division-centric, where a Walmart e-commerce exec thinks of e-commerce sales first, Walmart sales second and helping customers, well, that's pretty far down the list.

Macy's attempt to prioritize an online way to shop local is commendable. Now if it only actually did it and made sure it worked, that would be much more interesting.

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