Last autumn, at an all agency digital expo that we ran in our offices, I was introduced to some odd little plastic boxes stuck to a meeting room wall by some forward thinking colleagues from Stockholm. Reminiscent of colourful beetles, I was informed that they were iBeacons and they were quietly emerging as the next big thing for Apple, and pointed to the future of retail.
It wasn't until I landed at SXSW in Austin, Texas (the slightly nerdy interactive segment rather than the cool film and music bit) that I realised how prophetic my Scandinavian colleague had been.
Beacon technology was everywhere. Not just from Apple but news of other big players stepping into the beacon arena including PayPal and Qualcomm.
Wherever there was a retail brand, FMCG or packaged goods marketer present on stage or milling by a food truck, these low energy micro transmitters were a topic of discussion. Perspectives on this tech ranged from the evangelical - "It will enable powerful new comms channels with customers allowing unrivalled specificity" - through to the highly suspicious - "it's a licence to spam customers and steal their personal data."
Transform customer experience
As ever, I think the reality lies somewhere in between. What is emerging, in my opinion, is a platform that has the potential to transform customer experience for the better not just in retail but in any service proposition whether that's a hospital, a museum or an airport.
A series of UK brands have been trialling this technology including Waitrose, Tesco and Virgin Atlantic but underlying concerns about data management and privacy have appeared to fuel caution. The first bold play in the UK is now evident, with Crown Estates announcing plans this summer to roll out an entire iBeacon network along Regent Street. One of the UK’s more prestigious stretches for retail therapy. So then, let's speculate what the possible enhancements to customer experience for those that have the Regent Street app installed might be?
What is emerging, in my opinion, is a platform that has the potential to transform customer experience for the better.
One might get pushed the daily specials and a discount voucher when lingering outside an interesting eatery. If each table is beacon-enabled one might then be presented with the menu on your device and be able to order straight from the kitchen for that rapid lunch and finally settle the bill in the same way.
In one of the many fashion outlets beacons could detect the rail of clothes you are perusing and have the app notify you if your size is in stock or if other colours are available. They could also track customers’ dwell time around the store, and provide data about which merchandising was best capturing their customers' attention.
Away from retail, imaginative beacons use ranges from airport luggage tracking, enabling notification when your case pops onto the baggage claim carousel, through to beacons on fridges that trigger the launch of a shopping app as you approach them.
We are only just scratching the surface of the possibilities. Great user experiences are born from an appreciation of the user and their context, whether that's in a physical or digital environment. The implications of beacons are very exciting to me, because they can provide a specificity of context previously unheard of - bridging physical and digital brand worlds, and creating an opportunity to surprise, delight and offer utility in so many ways.
However, if this developing opportunity is to be successful, it will be critical for brands to treat the value exchange with their customers with respect; creating quality communications, content and interactions whilst recognising the privilege of being invited to access consumers' most personal of digital devices.