The golden metre
German retail trade is nowhere near as dead as people think – shops are busy and surrounded by knowledge-hungry customers willing to buy, and who are looking for the relevant products and services. Most (almost 70%) are also co-operative, bringing with them high-tech hardware worth several hundred or even thousand Euros in the form of Smartphones, tablets or tab phones. The only problem? We as app providers, chain outlets or networks were not really able to respond to this kind gesture, leave alone utilise it profitably. QR codes, NFC and GPS were faint-hearted attempts to get potential customers to take their Smartphones out of their pockets at the POS so as to interact with the brand, product or company. These approaches were either too laborious (QR codes [with the commendable exception being Heinemann QR code shopping at Frankfurt airport]), not widespread enough (NFC) or too inaccurate (GPS).
The time customers have left for brand communication, product searches or technology hurdles in their everyday life as they scurry past display windows and shelves laden with bags is barely more than two seconds.
If customers are willing to allow this communication, or even initiate interaction, then they will only do so if the information is accurate in terms of time and location, has highly relevant content, and is also concise and appropriate to them. In other words, seamlessly integrated into their daily life, knows their needs and preferences like a good friend, and is on the scene in cases of doubt. “Brand, please don’t disturb me unless you’re my friend.”
This requires new technological and conceptual approaches based on so-called “beacon” technology (quickly christened as “iBeacon” by Apple): comparatively simple technology which, positioned at any given location, can send a clear signal to other devices (ideally the customers’ Smartphones) nearby. The beacon itself is generally “dumb”, with no connection to back-end systems, nor the ability to send information other than its unique number to the user’s Smartphone. The intelligence for using this data properly and converting it into added value lies in the chain outlet’s, brand’s or service provider’s app (e.g. push messages or automatic crediting of loyalty programme points).
In doing so, Apple, at least is playing perfectly into the app providers’ hands: the technology’s requirements are so firmly interwoven with the operating system that beacons are not only recognised when the app is closed, but even when the device is switched off, allowing relevant messages to be displayed. The Bluetooth function is also magically switched on after every update, even when you’re sure you had turned it off.
The system bases this on the Bluetooth Low Energy Standard (BLE) of a particularly energy-efficient model, which has been used since the iPhone 4s/Android 4.3, and therefore protects the user’s precious battery resources. The transmitters usually come in the form of colourful, soap-sized cases, do not need a network or power connection, and can be stuck onto ceilings, shelves or stand-up displays within just a few seconds. The beacons developed by hmmh have a programmable range of between 30 centimetres and around 100 metres.
Before we providers can take a giant slurp from the bowl of sweet customer information, there is the matter of “onboarding”. Like all location services, the ability to read out beacon information via app requires the user’s prior consent. This unique chance cannot, under any circumstances, be wasted, and entails well-thought-out communication of benefits – as instantly and geographically close by as possible in order to trigger an immediate “light bulb moment”.
But just like a good friend, an iBeacon/storage apparatus must also be able to then forget things, or, preferably, only store what is absolutely necessary. European data protection laws similarly expect there to be an easy opt-out facility, ideally straight out of the app.
Beacons are now using comparatively economical but intelligent technology to finally give retail trade the opportunity to become a friendly companion, to reach out to customers with relevant, appropriate information and promotions, and thus to interlink online with offline like never before.
Part II will explain what successful beacon concepts look like.