Are In-Store Beacons The New LOL?

Danielle Beurteaux

Quick quiz: LOL or Ha ha? If you’re a fan of the former, welcome to the 1.9 percent who use the once-ubiquitous short-form for hilarity.

They’re like QR codes: Are you a fan of QR codes? Ever use one? If numbers speak louder than words, then the answer to both those questions is probably “no.” QR codes are one example of a Cologne, Germany --- Germany, Cologne, Young woman with mobile in supermarket --- Image by © Robert Kneschke/Westend61/Corbismarketing tool that just didn’t live up to the hype. (In fact, they weren’t developed for marketing at all; they were for inventory control and are living on in less marketing-centric environments).

The marketing technology that’s becoming more common in the U.S. these days is beacons. These are devices that use a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology to deliver hyperlocal content. Target just announced it will trial beacons in 50 stores, notifying customers of deals that are—hopefully—relevant to their interests.

Stores including Macy’s and Sephora having been using beacons for a while; sports stadiums also use them, as do some hotels and airports.

Are they a better idea than QR codes, and will they deliver?

One commonality between QR codes and beacons is the basic technology on the consumer-facing side. QR codes required dedicated apps, readers that didn’t always read, and placement of the codes in functional environments. Beacons also require dedicated apps which consumers need to download and engage with—and they’ll have to feel comfortable doing it. Beacons have already been connected to stalking (even though they require user opt-in), so there’s a reputation management issue here already.

But the starting point is that, privacy concerns or no, making the technology simple and intuitive will be the key to its longevity.

One app to rule them all

One of the barriers for engagement is that each store requires users to download a dedicated app and grant a slew of permissions, a process which has yet to become ubiquitous with consumers.

To simplify the process, there are companies working on providing a universal app that responds to every beacon (which also uses QR Codes). The city of Columbus, Georgia, is now home to Piper apps, which provide discounts at restaurants, information for tourists, a guide to the local university, and info for house hunters.

Google is also getting involved with the launch of Eddystone, an open-format beacon technology that’s compatible with iOS and Android and that offers a wide range of features.

Challenges for marketers

For retailers and markets, in-store beacons present another challenge—managing their spend. While there have traditionally been separate buckets for advertising and in-store promotions, marketers must now adapt to the continually changing retail, virtual, and IRL environments that employ a variety of technologies, and many companies are still grappling with the question of how to actually use the data they’ve collected.

Want more customer-centered best practices? See 4 Ways to Make Customer Experience the Heart of Your Business.

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.