Beacons Technology Is a Retailer’s Best Friend

Have you ever been to a baseball game and wished you could find out exactly which concession stand was the fastest, or which restroom had the shortest line? And when walking into your favorite store, if the displays know who you are and start showing you the latest deals and suggestions that reflect your personal shopping habits? These scenarios are now possible through iBeacons.

If the name sounds a lot like an Apple product, that’s because it is. iBeacons were introduced by the company in 2013 and are low-cost Bluetooth Low Energy transmitters that notify mobile devices of their presence when the user approaches. In conjunction with apps, with a little help from the cloud, they then trigger certain actions.

Seem a little too much like science-fiction? It’s not. In fact, AirWatch by VMware identified beacons and proximity targeting technology as one of the top mobile trends to watch in 2015. It quotes a Swirl study conducted late last year that claims that “61 percent of shoppers would do more holiday shopping at retail locations with beacon marketing programs.”

iBeacons aren’t the only products taking advantage of beacons and proximity targeting technology. In September 2013, PayPal announced PayPal Beacon, a Bluetooth Low Energy device that will connect to a customer’s PayPal app when they enter a store. When they’re ready to make a purchase, all they have to do is say they’re paying with PayPal and the transaction will be automatically completed: no cash, cards, taps or signatures required — all hands free.

shirtsPayPal Beacon will also connect consumers to enhanced shopping experiences such as automatically ordering their favorite dish at their usual lunch spot, or getting personalized service at their favorite clothing store. They can choose to accept messages and special offers from stores that they walk into.

Among the many businesses taking a closer look at the technology is Virgin Atlantic, which is testing them at London’s Heathrow airport to give customers a more pleasant travel experience. A passenger approaching security screening can receive a notification telling their phone to open the electronic boarding pass, so it’s ready to be scanned by security. In the main area of the airport, passengers using the service receive special offers as they pass partner locations. No commission at the money exchange booth today? Yes, please.

Canadian Tire — which sells a lot more than tires, despite its name — is testing personalized interactive experiences in its flagship store in Edmonton, Alberta, using another low power technology known as Radio-frequency identification (RFID). In a 21,000-squarefoot ‘store within a store,’ sporting goods customers can evaluate their golf swing or analyze their gait to help them choose the right clubs and shoes.

At a recent digital marketing conference, beacons and RFID were demonstrating how a registered shopper could make wardrobe choices. When he entered the store, the beacon saw his phone, identified him and directed him to suggested items by illuminating their shelves and changing the displays as he approached. After he had selected a new shirt and pants, the system played the role of a sales associate, pointing him towards shoes and a jacket that coordinated with his selection.

Another use case is a retail outlet optimizing store traffic by detecting the path shoppers take as they browse — sometimes even deducing their goal so a sales associate could help. For example, if someone looks at vanities, then heads to the sinks, chances are he’s doing a bathroom renovation and may need to check out faucets as well.

The possibilities of this technology are endless, but one challenge the industry faces will be in maintaining user privacy; how easy will it be for others to see your personal preferences? Is there a way to minimize the ‘creepiness factor’ when a machine seems to know everything about you? Will companies be able to store and share your data with others? As the technology continues to develop, many of these challenges will help shape its evolution — and its ultimate benefit to shoppers.