Where Foursquare Went Missing On Black Friday

In the Walmart Nation, Check-In Apps Haven't Caught On, Which Is Bad News for Foursquare and for Retailers

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Foursquare is hot. Just ask anyone in New York or San Francisco. But if, one day, it shuffles off to the deadpool of once-hot-but-now-dead startups, I'll tell you why. It became clear to me at about 10 pm on Thanksgiving night in the Central and Mountain time zones when Walmart , the reigning king of retail, gave no reason, nor incentive, for customers to check-in while waiting online to get inside their stores.

Foursquare is a 10 million-plus network of people looking for deals and earning faux badges that matter only to a small community of likeminded users. It is the bleeding edge of what will someday be a thriving mobile geo-location world that we will all inhabit. But for now, Foursquare is a regional play that masks what it is not – a middle America, mainstream tool. For weeks I've suggested that this past weekend could (or should) be the biggest in Foursquare's history. After eliminating would-be contenders such as Gowalla, and fending off Facebook, Google and a host of check-in apps, the holiday was theirs for the taking. No technology could better mess with the Black Friday, in-store experience between customers and brands, and the reason for the season (deep, deep discounts).

Yet, it didn't happen. It didn't happen in places like St. Louis (where I live) or any number of other cities outside the Top 20 because people either didn't care or didn't understand the power of check-ins. Allow me to give you two personal anecdotes that explain what could be the beginning of the end for Foursquare. At 9 p.m. Central on Thanksgiving night, Toys R Us opened its doors to thousands of would-be buyers. At my local store a Foursquare deal was offered to the first five shoppers on a given item, once five people were checked in. It took nearly one hour for five check-ins on the biggest shopping day of the year and for the deal to become available to those individuals. In a store with a capacity of 1,128 people and lines taking nearly two hours, not even two handfuls of people could be bothered to check-in for more of what they craved in the form of better deals.

But Foursquare's bigger stumble wouldn't happen for another hour. It finally arrived at 10 p.m. when Walmart opened its doors. Of the first crush of people, less than 50 total customers were checked-in at Walmarts across the St. Louis region. Again we have the kick off to the biggest shopping day paired with the biggest retailer – and nothing. Nothing to see, no deal to be had, move right along, folks.

If Foursquare gets its post-mortem, people will no doubt conclude it died from lack of mainstream adoption, but the truth is it died from lack of education. Lack of education from retailers about the value exchange taking place and a drive to connect. Brands like RadioShack, Macy's and American Express have tried to educate people, but it has either been too little or too late for middle America. Generally speaking, consumers just have not learned fast enough how to utilize these tools to their benefit.

As Black Friday gives way to Cyber Monday and the rest of this holiday season, there will be more reports about the surge in online sales and the growth of mobile usage. All key trends for a shift in a highly-digital retail world, but it masks the reality of what took place last week. The check-in and geo-location industry aren't going away, but Foursquare might if it can't get middle America, and its preferred retailers, to pay attention.

Chris Copeland is CEO of GroupM Search – The Americas, the search marketing specialist division of GroupM. Chris drives global search strategy for the organization to foster the innovation and application of search as an integrated channel for GroupM's communications planning agencies ( Maxus , MEC , MediaCom and Mindshare) and agency clients.
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