It's 8:58 a.m. in Chicago and about 15 people are lined up outside the Gap on Michigan Ave. Each of them has a smartphone in hand. Some came in groups and are chatting with each other, some are listening to their iPhones. All of them are refreshing Facebook, ready to check in exactly two minutes from now to claim their prize: The first Facebook deal. The "first 10,000 customers" to check in at a Gap via Facebook Places today would receive a free pair of jeans worth up to $59.50, or 40% off any one item.
I went, partially to see how it would all work. And if I wound up with a free pair of pants, hey, I wasn't going to complain. As someone soon to see his household grow from three to five, a bargain's a bargain. When Gap offered the first national Groupon I bought in. I spent $25 for the Groupon and got $50 in Baby Gap clothes for the impending twins. Gap likely got no more than half of that money. The check-in cost me nothing. So for $25 I have now gotten $110 worth of Gap merchandise. You have to wonder what that's doing to its margins.
The experience did not go quite as planned. The actual deal did not show up when I checked in on my iPhone, but the salesperson handing out the printed coupons had me show her my phone with my check-in on screen and gave me the coupon anyway. The "first 10,000 check-ins" claim was somewhat misleading in that each store was given an allotment of vouchers and once they were gone that was it. This Gap was allotted 75 free pairs and ran out by 10 a.m. The deal wasn't communicated to all of the staff, either. The checkout counter upstairs in the men's department had no idea what was going on, but that only caused a momentary confusion.
There were signs that social media, and especially location-based marketing, still have a ways to go before being considered mainstream. You'd suspect longer lines for a door-buster like this if it were advertised in traditional media. Of the first 25 people at the store, I follow at least three of them on Twitter. But maybe this kind of promotion will help the services catch on. One friend posted on Facebook, "Never thought I'd use any location-based social media tools ... ever ... until the Gap offered me free pants. And it's just that simple, folks."
One side-effect: snarkiness from the hipsters and the slightly more fashion-conscious. When explaining my recent Gap experiences in a subsequent Facebook post, my friend Alecia Dantico, a vice president in Weber Shandwick's digital communications practice, commented, "Interesting. Barney's doesn't seem to work the same way, Matt."