To beacon or not to beacon, that is the question. As retailers roll out beacon technology, is it really enriching the customer experience?

It’s a year since Apple revealed it would be rolling out iBeacon technology. Since then a plethora of retail destinations, retailers and brands have followed suit: Regent Street, Tesco, Waitrose, Holland & Barrett, Mothercare… the list goes on.

Beacons promise to transform how we communicate in-store, but the question of how is largely unanswered.

Beacons provide the opportunity to ping more offers to shoppers in-store and that will drive more sales, right?

Well, maybe not. According to a 2014 survey of UK smartphone owners by eDigitalResearch, only 33% of respondents said messages to their smartphone would influence purchase.

The marketing community is transfixed by digital technology, but appears incapable of doing anything beyond digitising the traditional. TV spots are now viral films, old-school promotion now happens on social media instead of in-store, and paper coupons have become virtual.

To truly understand this new technology we decided to turn our office into a living lab. We’ve recently moved to a new office, so we created an app and used beacons to help people interact with the space and drive loyalty to our in-house cafe, Cash-Only Tony’s.

People are on a mission when they shop so the best shopper-marketers try to remove barriers to purchase. Retail environments are already packed with price messaging and promotion but shoppers want clarity and simplicity.

Any technology must enrich the retail experience, making it easier, more personal and more convenient.

To work well, beacons have to be contextually integrated with existing systems and behaviour. Starbucks in South Korea, and Harris+Hoole in the UK, have recognised this, using apps to make buying coffee more convenient and personal. This is delivered with a sophisticated and expensive electronic point of sale system. However, we’ve achieved something similar in our café by simply using two beacons. Our customers even get a digital stamp on their loyalty card.

We’ve also discovered that people are prepared to trade some personal data for improved relevance and convenience. As a regular traveller

I am looking forward to seeing how British Airways will broaden its use of beacons. It already pings the wi-fi password to the BA app as you pass a beacon in the Heathrow T5 lounge. Allying app data with that of its Executive Club reward scheme presents almost endless opportunities.

Retailers exploring the capabilities of beacons ask themselves lots of questions, primarily whether they should beacon or not. Looking ahead, the real question is what should they be doing with new technologies to solve customers’ problems and enrich their experience.

  • Simon Hathaway, president and global head of retail experience, Cheil