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Two Companies Using SMS in Surprising Ways

retail uses of sms marketing

In many ways, SMS messaging is so commonplace people don’t think about it. They just do it. For example, using SMS for mobile marketing in retail is a fairly standard use case whether you’re a company or the consumer. But there are always exceptions – those who innovate when it seems there’s nothing new to be had. Here are two examples of companies from the US using SMS in ways no one else is – yet.

Nordstrom’s TextStyle

Nordstrom, an upscale American department store (think House of Fraser), has long provided a personal stylist service. Anyone can request a personal stylist who will offer them advice and give feedback even if the customer doesn’t plan to make a purchase. Usually this means communicating by phone, then meeting in person at one of their stores. Last year though, Nordstrom launched NEXT, a service that let its customers communicate with their stylist via SMS rather than talking on the phone. The service was launched because many of their customers prefer to communicate by text message.

Each of the company’s stylists or salespersons receives their own mobile number – basically a virtual mobile number based on descriptions I’ve read. This way, their customers have a personal and direct way to connect with their stylist rather than sending a message to a single shortcode with a keyword. The service was a huge success.

So it isn’t too surprising that the company has taken the service one step further. This past May, they launched TextStyle.  Once a person has opted into TextStyle, they can place orders simply by sending a text message to their stylist or salesperson (It can be either. You don’t need a personal stylist to use TextStyle).

retail uses of sms marketing

According to a press release by the company, this is how a customer would use the service:

The customer can ask for a product, or the sales person can recommend a product by texting a description or a link to a photo. If the customer likes the recommended product they can buy it right then and there. They reply with the word “buy” plus a unique code. Their account on file is charged and the item is shipped.

While the press release didn’t say much about the unique code required to buy, I imagine it is probably the equivalent of a PIN code associated with their Nordstrom account. Using the code helps prevent accidental or fraudulent purchases.

The service is available at all of their 116 stores in the US. And it really doesn’t get much easier to buy something does it? Even if you know what you want from a big, streamlined online retailer like Amazon it still takes quite a few clicks to get your item and have it sent (yes, you can use their one click buy option but you still had to look up what you wanted didn’t you?). Need a pair of blue sequined high heels? Just text it to your Nordstrom salesperson and reply “buy”. If you love Nordstrom and have opted into the service it can save you a ton of time.

But what if you don’t like, or shop at, Nordstrom? Is there any text buying service out there for the rest of us? In the US the answer is yes. In the UK, maybe.

It works like Magic

What can you order by text? Anything. That’s the answer from a new company called Magic. Want a bean burrito? Magic will get it for you. Want an iPad Air 2? They’ll get that too. Looking for a black and white kitten? You guessed it, they say they can get that as well.

want cat food? you choose

If it’s legal, they say they will take any request and have it delivered to you. For a price.

Magic is a startup in the US that honestly wasn’t supposed to be a company.  It was an experiment the founders did just to see if ordering by text had any limits. (They were working on another app to help people monitor and manage their blood pressure when they stumbled into Magic). It all started when one of the founders, Mike Chen, set up an account with a cloud-based SMS service. He sent an order off to one of the other founders who then did what they had to do to get it delivered. But it wasn’t much work.

For every test order (every test was actually fulfilled too) they simply leveraged other services like Seamless (an online food ordering and delivery service) to get their fellows what they wanted.

On the surface it seems a little silly.  For example a customer wants Thai food, but is too busy or lazy to login to Seamless themselves so they text the Magic order number and asked them to order it for them. They pay Magic a few extra dollars (they’re in the U.S. after all) to do the ordering for them. And that’s where the company makes their money- the convenience fee, or mark up, applied to all orders.

But how did this silly idea become a multi million dollar startup? Like many things on the Internet, it went viral. In order to run their little experiment, they had created a website where they could direct family and friends to place orders. If you’ve ever seen the old Breck shampoo commercials from the 1970s you’ll know what happened next. If not, here it is: they told a few friends, who told a few friends, who told a few friends and somehow it ended up on two very popular websites with thousands of visitors. According to Wired, the service went from 30 people testing it out to thousands in the matter of a couple of days.

Everything went crazy and the founders knew they had something real. They ditched (gingerly I’m sure) the blood pressure app and began work on creating a system that could manage thousands of requests by text.

That was all just a few months ago. Magic has reportedly received a valuation of around $40 million and secured $12 million in funds to grow the business. The money is sorely needed if many of the reviews of Magic are true. Americans who try to text an order often end up on a waiting list in the hundreds, when they finally order their money is taken but the order never arrives. The reviews also say the company is trying to make things right when this happens, but the truth is they’ve just gotten so big, so fast, they can’t handle the demand.

And all this because they wondered what you could possibly order via SMS message, and were there any limits? According to Chen, people text asking for helicopters and cars. And the service does it’s best to deliver. Anything, really anything (legal), can be had – just like magic.

What about in the UK?

Magic was such a huge hit in the US that at least one company in the UK has tried to do the same thing. In April, many of the news outlets covered a press release by a company called Fetchme. They promised to provide a very similar service to what Magic provides in the U.S. but only in limited areas, mostly around London (Magic claims to work anywhere in the U.S, not just major cities).

But when I went looking for Fetchme to check it out, the website was no longer available. I can’t find very much at all about them other than the original articles written based on their press release. I did discover there is at least one other company with the same name doing something totally different so perhaps that was the start of some problems that have put them off for now. If you’re in London and want to have someone fetch you something, here’s their website: fetchme.co – Perhaps they’ll come back online at some point.

But the idea is catching on. There’s at least one company looking to take the concept to India.

So what is so exciting about this? With the Internet you can order just about anything you want in the world right now anyway. But it isn’t the ordering that’s exciting, it’s the fact that all you need to do is text “I want…(fill in the blank)” to a shortcode and you get what you want.  No searching the web, no dealing with online ordering forms (except setting up payment for Magic the first time you use them), no talking to people or running out to get your stuff. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but clearly there are plenty of people who think it is.

I wonder if the inventors of SMS ever envisioned it being used this way. Good or bad, inventive or lazy, I do think it’s cool people keep coming up with innovative ways to use SMS messaging.

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