Bold Goals: Talk to Customers with iBeacons

The latest item to catch retailers' eyes is invisible. Well, almost. iBeacon technology has reached the stage where savvy merchants can use it to communicate with customers via iOS smartphone lock screens. The process is smooth and seamless, with hidden iBeacons pushing messages according to who is shopping and where they are in the store.
iBeacons are small, low-energy devices that use Apple technology to broadcast to Bluetooth-enabled devices like smartphones. The beacons themselves are manufactured by several companies, and the platforms that run them vary by device. Recent projects involving geolocations or micro-locations center around iBeacons.
There are a huge number of potential uses for iBeacons in the retail environment. There have only been a few deployments so far, but technology is available right now to delight customers in the following ways:
  • Personalized greetings. An iBeacon near the store entrance can broadcast a personalized welcome message to any iPhone user. A large department store might use the opportunity to offer a one-day 10% off savings pass. An upscale boutique might mention the last time the customer shopped at the store. The system can even be set up to alert the manager that Mrs. Smith, who purchased more than $5,000 in furniture three months ago, just walked though the door.
  • Wayfinding. This can be as simple as serving up a store map as the customer enters or as sophisticated as connecting to recent online searches. ("Good morning, Mark, and welcome to Hardware Central. The cordless drill you recently looked at online is one aisle over, at the end of aisle 3.") The system can also make suggestions based on past buying history ("Thanks for shopping at Menswear Daily. The pinstriped shirts you bought last month are on sale today.")
  • Loyalty programs and mobile payments. iBeacon retail platforms are designed to be tied into a retailer's point-of-sale system, rewards program, and mobile payment system. Shoppers can be reminded of coupons or store credits available to them, and they can be prompted to pay with their mobile device when they enter the checkout area. Payment takes place via an electronic pass stored in Apple's Passbook; the cashier just scans the barcode on the phone's screen to accept payment.
When evaluating iBeacon products, retailers should keep a few things in mind. First, not all beacons are created equal in terms of power (some run on batteries that have to be changed) or security.
Second, the platform used to create messages to be broadcast can make or break an iBeacon venture. Some brands are easier to set up and adjust than others. Make sure messages can be quickly adjusted by managers and that the beacon broadcast range can be finely tuned—the one in the kids department shouldn't broadcast so loudly it spills into the electronics area.
Finally, retailers should remember there's a fine line between helpful and irritating. The more targeted the message, the better—and avoid sending so many that customers turn off their notifications.

Timothy Perfitt is founder and CEO of Twocanoes Software and Labs, a provider of enterprise beacons, as well as software, hardware and custom development services.
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