Beacons in retail – attracting attention

In case you don’t know what a beacon is, it’s a device that silently communicates with your smartphone. Which maybe sounds a bit sinister, right? But let me tell you how beacons are changing the way you shop.

Estimote beacons

(image from Estimote)

First, let’s go forward in time. I’m imagining, here, but stay with me. I walk into my favourite store. My phone beeps. The screen reads: “Would you like to check in?”. I tap on “Sure!” (noting the exclamation mark the copywriters thought would make me feel really positive). A second passes. Suddenly my phone flashes “Hi, Noelle, welcome back!”. Pause. “That handbag you were looking at last time you were here, now we have it in red, would you like us to pull one out for you?”. Ok, maybe a bit creepy, but with time and practice it could be seen as friendly and helpful.

Let’s say I’m standing by the T-shirt rail. My phone beeps, and reads “Would you like to see a video of the new T-shirt collection due in next week?”. I tap on “Sure!” (getting a bit tired of the exclamation marks), and suddenly I’m watching a video of happy young things sporting the colourful T-shirts that I will no doubt come back next week to purchase.

Or, I pick up a jacket and hold it up against my chest in front of a mirror. This magic mirror reads the product tag and converts to a screen that shows me images of matching products available in the store, and maybe a video of that jacket on the catwalk.

The thing is, that is not at all futuristic, the technology is already here and is already being tested in some stores. That technology is beacons.

beacons in retail

(image from

Beacons use Bluetooth technology* to detect nearby smartphones and transmit messages, such as a greeting, store information, product information… They allow retailers to aim messages at individual customers, according to their location and profile. If you’re walking by the breakfast cereal aisle, you might like to know that there’s a special offer on Cornflakes, especially if you’ve bought Cornflakes there before. Or, you get offered a free cup of coffee as you approach the coffee bar. Sure, you could get the message by reading the flyers or posters the store has helpfully pasted on the shelves and walls. But, really, who reads those? A message on our phone is much more likely to be noticed.

Another cool thing beacons can do is track how customers move through a shop. This will help them improve layouts and merchandising, which should make the customer’s experience more efficient, could make staff planning more productive (how many customer assistants do you need, and where should you position them?), and could help sales (maybe a product is not selling well because customers don’t go by that shelf).

In general, people don’t like mobile advertising, but apparently it’s not so annoying if it’s sensitive to time and place. What would work well for me is personalized recommendations, of the “since we know you like artichokes, we’ve saved some of the new baby ones for you to try, pick them up at in aisle 8” variety, much more so than coupons or special offers. Beacon technology supports and enables the holy grail of efficient client-centric marketing. Personalized recommendations are client-centric. Coupons are not.


(image from Inmarket)

But beaconed coupons no doubt have their uses and their fans. Some retailers hope that coupons that get sent while you’re in a shop, or even in front of a particular product, will combat “showrooming”, when customers check out the physical product in a physical retail location, and then go and buy it cheaper online. And apparently, they do work: a study by beacon platform provider Inmarket shows that targeted marketing including couponing increased “product interactions” (which I imagine ranges from buying the product to just picking it up) by 19x over a given month-long period earlier this year.

Customer service could improve. With click and collect (you buy online, pick up in store) becoming more and more popular, the store could detect and verify a client as he or she walks in, and have their purchase ready and waiting for them at the service counter before they even get there.

supermarket apps

(images from and

There are still significant barriers for beacon technology to become widely used. Cost, for one thing, although that is becoming less and less of a barrier. Estimote’s beacons go for as little as $30, and can run for up to 2 years on a coin battery (and they’re available in funky colours!). And customer resistance is usually a significant barrier. Convincing us that it’s worth our while to download the app, configure the settings, opt-in and enable Bluetooth each time we walk into the store is going to take some creativity on the marketing managers’ part, at least until opening apps and enabling Bluetooth becomes as reflex-automatic as locking our car.  And with improving battery technology, I imagine we soon will be leaving Bluetooth on all the time.

Now, if all this tracking and messaging has you somewhat freaked out, you do have a choice. You can leave your phone at home, or in the car. Or you can turn it off. Personally, speaking as someone who hates shopping, I’m all for a technology that makes shopping more efficient, less frustrating, and helps me get out of the store faster. I just so hope that the app doesn’t tell me to have a nice day.

*For those of you who don’t know what Bluetooth technology is (hi, Mum!), it lets things send information to other things without cables. A bit like the mobile phones, but instead of talking, it’s sending information.

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