Beacons have been trialled by retailers across various sectors – does the technology offer sufficient insight to justify the cost?

Pretty much every UK retailer has had a look at beacon technology now, along with many shopping centre landlords.

The premise is interesting – who wouldn’t want to interact with their customer in a new, engaging way?



Many retailers have abandoned their beacon technology pilot schemes

However, the output of these pilot projects is always the same. The cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stand up, and another box of beacon hardware – received with so much excitement – is put away at the back of the IT cupboard, never to see the light of day until one of the techs wants to do a project at home with their fridge. Beacons are the Amstrad Superphone of today.

In 2002, video-calling was an idea from Star Trek, rejected by most consumers. But today, people sit on the train home with FaceTime and a headset, and nobody bats an eyelid. They didn’t want to buy a device purely to achieve that goal, but as an option it’s great.

The same can be said of beacons. Today, technology can allow you to locate any opted-in user within 1 sq m of where they are standing and communicate with them based on their context.

Business interest

If one or two companies offer this today, soon there will be hundreds of solutions, as is the way with technology.

The interest certainly exists. The business opportunity beacons promised to address is fascinating, so it is unsurprising that we have seen Tesco start  – and stop – their Chelmsford trial, Waitrose do a public test – and withdraw – and Asda and John Lewis make some announcements – which have since gone quiet.

“Even smart contextual interaction can seem like an obstacle to purchase path. No shopper today asks for more clutter, we all dream of simplicity”

Cyrus Gilbert-Rolfe

The biggest problem of course is that the theoretical idea and the actual experience are fairly far apart.

“I shall extend the omnichannel experience into the physical space,” says the brand marketer, with a grand vision. Sadly the retail environment tends to already be an obstacle course of price messaging, promotions, and ‘right now’ discounts.

Even smart contextual interaction can seem like an obstacle to purchase path. No shopper today asks for more clutter, we all dream of simplicity.

That experience will settle down as the smart brand guys get hold of the environment again, and we will see growth in the very personalised, inclusive messaging that increases loyalty and improves the experience.

But the supporting platform can’t carry the cost and expectation that a £20 per unit beacon roll-out brings.

Ultimately, none of those solutions will involve rolling out and supporting an army of fiddly, battery powered, flaky bits of tech to get lost, stolen, or broken.

All of the next wave of platform solutions for customer interaction will be enterprise hardware-based, hidden in the ceiling, delivering an array of solutions, not just proximity marketing, but also counting, analytics, mobile payments, and much more.

  • Cyrus Gilbert-Rolfe is chief executive at Movvo