5 Ways Apple’s iBeacons Can Change Retail

Apple iBeacon

Mention ‘Bluetooth marketing’ and those who are old enough will no doubt be reminded of those painful ‘pairing requests’ that plagued anyone with a Bluetooth phone in the early ’00s. But now it’s back with a vengeance in a new, improved and much more useful format.

Eat has been announced as the first UK retailer to trial iBeacons, Apple’s new personalised, micro-location-based notification and alerts system. Essentially ‘GPS for indoors’, they’re the Apple-branded version of an existing technology – Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons – which has been around for a couple of years and is already supported by the majority of recent Android handsets .

Previously consigned to the developer community, interest is now permeating the high street with several other fashion and food retailers understood to be close to signing up to the trial in the coming weeks. iBeacons are one of the more exciting technologies to hit consumer retail in the last few years, and there’s fantastic potential to use them in clever and creative ways.

1. Apple (Nearly) Embraces An Open Standard

A common Apple technique is to take an existing technology or service, modify it slightly, and then elevate it into the public consciousness by focusing on the actual benefit for normal people. This causes adoption issues for retailers, who have difficulties creating something that supports both Apple’s standard and the rest of their customers. With iBeacons, it is possible to create beacons which can support both iOS and Android/Windows devices at the same time. This means retailers know that, however they choose to implement beacons, they can serve the majority of their customers without complications.

2. Cheap, Low-Maintenance Hardware

The total cost of ownership for beacons is far below the usual level for enterprise retail hardware, to the point where they can almost be considered disposable. The ‘Low Energy’ part of BLE is important – beacon manufacturers Estimote, for example, claims its devices can run for two years on a single coin battery, greatly reducing the maintenance overhead for retail operations teams. With beacons costing little, even large retail stores can be fully networked for a negligible cost. Should one malfunction, swapping in a new beacon is like changing a light bulb in terms of effort and expense.

3. Accurate Indoor Location

Accurately locating customers indoors is a problem hardware manufacturers have been struggling with for years. This means that the ‘local’ experience stops when it’s most important – once the customer is actually inside the store. By creating a mesh of beacons and using triangulation, shopping centres, large stores or even public spaces like museums and stadiums can start providing visitors with really useful information based on their immediate environment – with an accuracy of inches rather than feet.

4. Passive, Not Active

Much of the functionality enabled by beacons could, in theory, have previously been achieved with NFC or even QR codes. The crucial difference with beacons is that to use them requires almost no effort on the user’s part – the information can just appear before them. This does mean the implied contact consent given (by tapping against an NFC spot, for example) is removed, so marketers must be careful not to ‘spam’ consumers or abuse their trust. Retailers can also catch brand fans (provided they’re looking at their smartphone) with exclusive offers while they’re outside the store, perhaps tempting them in when they would have otherwise walked straight past.

5. Customer Identification & Data Collection

Passive detection means beacons allow store staff to easily identify specific customers and quickly link them with their digital activity, bringing a whole host of customer service benefits and a real opportunity for ‘surprise and delight’. Imagine silently detecting and verifying a click and collect customer as soon as they enter the store, and having their items ready for them before they even reach the service counter.

iBeacons have the potential to play a significant role in retailers’ efforts to provide ever-more personalised and seamless customer experiences. You can expect in-store engagement to get a lot more relevant, interesting – and ultimately profitable – as a result.

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Alex Sbardella

Alex Sbardella is an expert in mobile retail strategy, mobile interface and architecture design at Red Ant, and he has worked with global clients across a broad range of industries. He specialises in creating concepts and user experiences tailored specifically for the mobile retail platform, including the award-winning app for Topshop as well as smartphone and tablet solutions for the Arcadia Group’s other leading High Street brands. He is co-author of Red Ant’s market-leading whitepapers ‘Going mobile – a How-to Guide’ and ‘Compelling customer experience through digital’.

  • Wojtek Borowicz

    Hi Alex,

    This is Wojtek Borowicz, I’m a community evangelist at Estimote.

    First of all, thanks for mentioning us in the post. Really nice write-up of the potential behind iBeacon standard. Just wanted to comment on the 3rd point of what you wrote. Indoor location of course is important, but we generally believe that it’s not nearly as valuable as delivering proximity and context solutions for mobile apps and devices. There’s just some much more that can be done with this technology than simply mapping stuff :)

    Cheers!

    • Osandi Sekoú Robinson

      Hi there.

      I’m curious what other cool projects (non-commercial) that you may have come across.

    • Hi Wojtek,

      Absolutely agree – Point 5 as an example. I do think though that the indoor proximity detection that Beacons enables is one of the key differences for most implementations we’ll see in the near future, versus what we used to be able to do with GPS and geofencing. I have a feeling shopping centres and museums will be amongst the first large rollouts.

      I also think it’s interesting that by using triangulation, you can theoretically give context-specific information everywhere in a store, rather than a sort of one-beacon-per-experience model. I presume this is what MLB are doing with their seat finder.

      It’s all in the implementation really – some fun times ahead.