retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

A few years back as I was leaving for a technology show, a friend asked me to keep my eyes open for the “killer application.” He was convinced that in technology, finding the next big trend was usually a matter of keeping one’s eyes open to the new system, new device or new solution that was quickly moving into dominance.

As I walked the show I realized he was both wrong and right. At the show, I found the killer app, but surprisingly it had nothing to do with information technology. Rather, I noticed it in the baggage storage area where for the first time it seemed like every bag was a wheelie. Today that might seem like a ridiculous observation, but it really wasn’t that long ago that wheelies were a new application; and a killer app at that.

My son found a killer app for me recently in the oddest of places. We were eating in a restaurant and he came rushing out of the bathroom telling me I had to go visit it immediately. That’s always a scary recommendation from an 18-year-old with a warped sense of humor. He worried me even more when he told me to bring my camera.

But he was right, although the killer app wasn’t apparent until I was leaving the bathroom. There on the exit was a special handle that allowed me to open the door using my forearm instead of my hand.

I don’t remember when we all became germaphobes, but my casual observations in public restrooms suggest that the world is divided into two groups. The first somehow has no need to wash their hands. The second, including me, figures out strange ways to avoid touching anything that might have been used by the first group. Opening the exit door is usually the biggest problem.

With that reality in mind, the forearm-operated door opener seems like sheer genius. In short, it’s a killer app. (In case you are wondering, I did take a picture. It was the first and last picture I have ever taken in a public restroom and I plan to keep that record intact.)

The question is, why aren’t there more? The basic principle of a killer app after all is pretty simple: find a widespread problem and solve it, though usually it is used in the IT world for a new bit of hardware or software wizardry that changes the basic value of the technology itself. I’d argue that while Microsoft did this by simplifying operating systems or Apple with the iPod, the killer app designation belongs to the genius who figured out we’d be better served pulling suitcases on wheels with telescoping handles. To my mind, killer apps come in all shapes and sizes.

But where are they? For instance, when I was walking the aisles of my local supermarket this weekend, I was still struck at the missing killer app in the peanut butter aisle. Every shopper in America knows about the Peanut Corporation of America and its trail of tainted products. So why can’t my store have a little sign in the peanut butter aisle reminding us that jarred peanut butter isn’t impacted. I’m betting a lot of shoppers might find that a killer app at the moment.

I’ve written before about some of the brilliant ads run by Walmart during the current economic hardships. These ads educate shoppers on the incredible savings they realize by cooking a pizza at home each week instead of ordering in; or having breakfast cereal instead of a quick serve restaurant offering. (My mother tells me in Florida Walmart now touts the savings of having a big special meal at home instead of going to the expense of eating at a sit-down restaurant.)

Those ads aren’t quite killer apps. But when supermarkets give me recipes that clearly lay out how to make a simple, healthy and economical meals—that is a killer app.

The possibilities are all around us, the problem is we need to look at the situation slightly differently to find them. Putting wheels on suitcases, with telescoping handles seems so simple now, but it wasn’t always that way. It requires curiosity, creativity and maybe just a bit of inspiration. And that is what all of us should be looking for every day.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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