Beacons: Part 2 – Application

get in-store notifications iPhone screen

In Part 1 of this post, we covered the technology behind and limitations of beacons.

As discussed in Part 1, beacons have some limitations. One of the most important to understand is their lack of accuracy over distance. Because of this limitation, most implementations involve tagging each location of interest with its own beacon. If you have a larger area to be tagged, then multiple beacons can be used to define an area, technically referred to as a “region” or “geo-fence.” Think of a region as an area defined by a perimeter of beacons. Each beacon that participates in defining a region can, at the same time, be used to mark a specific location within the region. For example, a home improvement store may have a collection of beacons set up to identify a “region” for the Outdoor Living department. One of those beacons might also indicate to visitors that they are near the patio furniture.

The most common use of beacons today is to provide location-specific information in retail. Apple has one of the best implementations, naturally, and acts as a good example of a few possible uses of the technology. Apple’s stores are configured with a geo-fence made up of a number of beacons throughout each store. However, as mentioned earlier, your phone can’t do anything with those beacons unless it has an app that is associated with those beacons. In this case, we need the “Apple Store” app. When you first install it, you will be prompted to allow “in-store notifications.” You must accept this or enable it later through preferences and also make sure you have Bluetooth enabled before the app’s iBeacon-related features will work.

With the app installed, and in-store notification and Bluetooth enabled, you will get the following notification when you walk into an Apple Store.

Example of Apple store notification

This type of welcome screen can be used to communicate any announcements or special offers that are available in that specific store. In the screenshot, you can see that a free music track is available. (That track was playing in the store when I walked in.) The three other slides in that rotator were “Next workshop in 15 min, Numbers for Mac,” “Upcoming Workshop, Discover Your iPhone, Today at 5:00 PM” and “View this store’s schedule of workshops and events.” The same screen also has “Get Help,” “Get Support” and “EasyPay” features.

What I find interesting about this implementation is that as far as the user is concerned, the welcome message when arriving at the store is the only feature that overtly requires beacons. However, behind the scenes, Apple is using beacons to facilitate customer service. Both the “EasyPay” and “Get Help” features have beacon-enabled components that help the sales associates help you.

When you tap “Get Help,” your name and location in the store are added to a list on each associate’s device and the one nearest you gets a notification. It is relatively simple at that point for them to find the “guy with his iPhone out” and ask, “How may I help you, Mr. Edgin.”

When using the “EasyPay” feature, you scan and pay for merchandise using your iTunes account. That feature doesn’t require beacons. However, carrying an unbagged item out of the store with no physical receipt is made possible through beacons.

EasyPay explanation pop-up screen on iPhone and view of EasyPay being usedScreenshot of product description and pay now button in EasyPay and thank you screen on EasyPay
The fact that no one tackles you on your way out is proof that beacons are doing their job. In fact, don’t be surprised if, on your way out, the salesperson at the door calls you by name and thanks you for your purchase. Remember that your phone and those that each sales associate is carrying are also beacons. The associate stationed near the door can see that someone made an “EasyPay” purchase and that person is near the door. Apple’s implementation ties the whole process back into the handhelds that every sales associate carries in-store.

Another common use is as part of an indoor mapping/guidance solution. Even though triangulation can’t be relied upon, indoor location solutions can still work well through strategic placement of beacons throughout a site. If your app can know what doorways a visitor has passed through and if they are standing next to a marked location in a room, then it can not only show a map with “you are here,” but it can also show the general path of how you got there. Think about the “you are here” experience in a mall or amusement park. The accuracy of beacons is more than sufficient to show your location on a map in the same way.


Other than providing customers with an enhanced experience, the technology has a significant added benefit to the retailer: analytics. On a basic level, each time the retailer’s app sends a detected beacon’s ID to the server to get related information, the retailer can record what beacon was detected, when it was detected and the unique ID associated with the customer’s smartphone. To take full advantage of the analytics capabilities, the app should be developed to also record all beacon activity throughout a customer’s visit, as well as any user interaction with the app. The app should also request the user to identify themselves by creating or logging in to a retailer-specific or social account. All the collected information can be used to do some very powerful things:

  • Analyze traffic patterns in the store.
  • Track the success of any specific in-store product display.
  • Track physical sales and generate targeted customer follow-up.
  • Provide personalized promotions in-store to a specific customer based on previous store visits and/or visits to the retailer’s website.
  • Provide personalized promotions online to a specific customer based on their in-store activities.

Groundbreaking New Uses

As with any new technology, discovering all of the possibilities takes time. Here are some of the newer ideas of which brands could take advantage.

Virtual Merchandising
Photos of products or a single product example are displayed, and the customer’s smartphone gives them access to add the product to their shopping cart. Items can be purchased conveniently on site, either for delivery or for later pickup.1

Automated Dressing Rooms
This is an implementation that builds on virtual merchandising. A customer walks up to a display of a dress they would like to try on. Rather than rummaging through the rack to find their size, they use the app on their smartphone to select their size from a list of available sizes for that dress. Further, with beacon-integrated technology from Hointer, they can continue this experience into the dressing room. Once there, all the items they selected are automatically delivered via an automated system. If they find that they need a different size, they can indicate that via a tablet on the wall. When they are done, they put the items they want in a bag and the items they don’t want in a return chute. They then complete their transaction on the tablet without having to wait in a checkout line.

Treasure Hunts
Beacon treasure hunts are naturally suited for promotional events such as trade shows and conferences. Beacons are placed at locations of interest throughout a defined area. Players use the event’s app on their smartphones to track down and “collect” each point of interest by completing a task that is only given to them when they are near the associated beacon. Common tasks are tweeting with a specific hashtag, posting a selfie taken at the location, watching a video or completing a small quiz.

Users Must Opt In

Understanding a technology’s limitations is just as important as understanding its capabilities. The key limitation to beacon technology is consumer choice. For the technology to work at all, two things must happen. First, the customer must download and launch the app associated with your beacons. Once they have launched it, regardless of whether the app is running, the customer’s phone will alert them when they are near any of your beacons. Second, the customer must have Bluetooth enabled on their phone. Although the vast majority of smartphones have Bluetooth enabled by default, the largest hurdle here is that for years the advice has been to turn off Bluetooth unless it was actively in use. With the advent of Bluetooth 4.0 (AKA Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE), the issues related to power consumption are no longer valid. In my opinion, getting consumers to believe that power consumption is no longer an issue will be one of the most difficult challenges.

Beacon technology fills a long-standing gap in the smartphone ecosystem. For a long time, applications have been able to deduce that a customer is in a specific store. That limited benefit was never strong enough to entice customers to download a related app. With beacons, an application can give customers valuable information related to a specific section of the store and enable the customer to interact based on that location. It can enable them to more easily get product information, and it can allow them to instantly purchase items. These new value-added customer experiences serve to strongly drive the use of the related app. The more customers use the app, the stronger the benefit to the brand, especially in terms of analytics, personalization and marketing refinement. It is a technology whose time has come. Brands who aren’t taking the technology seriously will be at a significant competitive disadvantage to those who are reaping the rewards.


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