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I’m a beacon. How are you?

  • Opinion
  • October 8, 2015
  • Greg Doone
I’m a beacon. How are you?

The personalised welcome message greeting your customers might be on a screen on the wall near the entrance or on the customer’s smartphone delivering the welcoming message. As the customer moves through your store, their interest is piqued by highly targeted promotions beamed from strategically placed displays. What they see is based on past purchases and recent online activity and when they need assistance, they touch a screen in the store or on their phone to signal a sales assistant.

Via a wearable device, the sales assistant has all the relevant information necessary to provide the customer with a highly personalised experience: “I hope you’re enjoying the watch you purchased last month. How can I help you today?”
When we talk through this scenario with business leaders and customers alike, we tend to get two polarised responses.  

1)        That’s genius.

2)        That’s creepy.

That is the rub when it comes to disruptive consumer technology. There is a line - and the technology and human interactions are just not mature enough to know where it is. The rewards for getting it correct, however, are remarkable.
That’s why experience design is so important. You have to be able to rapidly experiment, test with real customers on a small scale, iteratively, to know which side of that line you are standing. Am I offering value? Am I stalking? Or often, am I offering enough value to offset my stalking?

Experimenting with beacons.

The ubiquity of smartphones and advances in lightweight communication protocols such a Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) are empowering retailers with the ability to use a customer’s physical location to deliver a customised shopping experience.
Also known as beacon technology, the platform consists of small devices that communicate their presence across Bluetooth to listening devices such as a consumer’s smartphone. These signals can then be used by a retailer’s smartphone app to identify customers, approximate their locations and provide timely and relevant information or offers.
Other potential consumer benefits include instant ‘check out’ or at-home delivery without needing to tell a store assistant your address. Even in-store navigation to a department or product via virtual reality on your personal device is a possibility.

Testing disruptive technologies with real customers.

Our US firm recently developed a beacon prototype in which customers use in-store displays to make purchases, receive promotions and consume customised content based on their physical location. This simulated shopping environment was used to understand the capabilities and limitations of beacons, and revealed some key considerations for any beacon deployment. The insights this generated were important to consider from a user experience, layout design and device consideration perspective.  

Experience design.

The customer’s context of value is a key consideration here. You are interrupting them through their mobile device, albeit after you have been invited through the download of an app. This is considered a personal action by most, so ensure you are offering something of value. This is also something uncovered in New Zealand-based testing on mobile devices.

When determining when and how to activate alerts or actions, consider the frequency of notifications and also the inherent delays in the confirmation of entry and exit from different zones. In the end, careful experience design will ensure receiving apps provide timely and useful content without being burdensome. This is where testing of different customer’s journeys are key.

As sensors become cheaper and more common in our surroundings, customers will grow more accustomed to personalised experiences. Now is the time for retailers to explore how to use sensors to enhance the shopping experience, rather than interrupt it with traditional push sales messages - a behaviour that customers may adapt to over time.

Device features, beacon placement and calibration are all considerations as part of the design of a system. They get you an important head start for a prototype, however there is no substitution for real user testing in your retail environment.

Beacons are an inexpensive piece of kit and basic prototypes can be built in a few weeks. The sooner organisations experiment, the sooner they can start unlocking the potential service and loyalty benefits. If they don’t, they could miss out on a great opportunity to leverage their physical spaces to lock-in customer loyalty. So start playing and learning. 

This story was originally published in NZ Retail magazine issue 739, August/September 2015.

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