Indoor Navigation Technology in Practice: Why Beacons Fall Short

A beacon is a small Bluetooth radio transmitter. Think of it like a lighthouse. A lighthouse transmits a single beam of light so that other ships can see it, similarly a beacon transmits a single signal that other devices can see. Instead of producing light though, a beacon sends a radio signal that is made up of a combination of letters and numbers transmitted at regular intervals of about 1/10th of a second. The beacon devices are small, unobtrusive, and can communicate with smartphones and tablets. By implementing them in brick and mortar locations or other indoor venues, companies can gather information about a customer’s location that is much more accurate than the traditional GPS-based location systems. In theory, beacons should allow for smart and highly detailed data collection. In 2013 when Apple released their iBeacon technology, everyone was ecstatic; partly because it was a new Apple product, but mainly because this technology was supposed to be the next big thing. Wired, TechCrunch, Forbes, and The Verge all gave the technology high praise in their reviews. The Washington Post even wrote an article praising the technology, entitled “How iBeacons Could Change the World Forever.” Now fast forward 6 years to the present date. Beacons do still exist, and companies like Google are beginning to create their own beacon technology. But it doesn’t feel like beacons have made much of an impact in our day-to-day lives at this point. So, what’s up? Are beacons still the location technology of the future? Why haven’t had a bigger effect on society today? Let’s find out. Imagine we’re back in 2013 and you’re the owner of a well-known and successful brand. You have already established multiple store locations, but your total revenue seems to be down slightly. Mobile technology is beginning to gain popularity, which provides you with a new opportunity to reach, monetize, and build relationships with your customers, but it also makes it possible for new, mobile-first companies to compete seriously with you. E-commerce demand comes in and provides personalized campaigns that drive customer loyalty and higher revenue, decreasing your brick-and-mortar revenue even more. You’re now in fear of your stores becoming obsolete. Then beacon technology becomes available. And suddenly, it seems like there might be a way to bring the in-store experience into the modern era. According to PC Magazine, “This technology could provide retailers the long-desired solutions and insight needed to incorporate mobile commerce and improve your shopping experience.” Sounds amazing right? But how will beacons do this? Beacons support more responsive messaging According to Wired, beacons were supposed to have a strong influence over the world of retail. The article said responsive messaging could allow retailers to “make specialized offers to customers depending where they are in the store”. For example, when a customer is shopping online and they leave an item in their cart, you can use push notifications to urge them to complete the purchase. This increases the odds of them actually buying. In retail stores, when a customer is contemplating buying an item, all the sales representative can do is talk to them about that item. If they are not able to persuade the shopper to complete the sale, there is no reasonable way to get that shopper’s information or follow up with them later - a sales associate can't ask the shopper for their phone number so they can follow up with them later. But with beacons, if a customer stops to browse a display, you can automatically send a message to their smartphone offering them a discount if they buy the item today. And if they still leave the store without buying, your brand could reach out to them later via mobile. 2. Beacons improve collection of customer data Forbes wrote that beacons would be “especially useful in places (like inside a shopping mall) where GPS location data may not be reliably available” and also said that, “BLE [Bluetooth Low Energy] allows for interactions as far away as 160 feet” with greater sensitivity than GPS or Wi-Fi tracking methods. This should mean owners get the same detailed insights into their in-store activity as they do on their app or website. A good beacon network should allow you to track how customers move throughout each store. You should be able to see all their patterns in detail, aisle by aisle. Then with this data you should be able to optimize the layout of every store, understand what is working about your in-store experience, and take the small information gathered to make big improvements to your customer personalization and targeting. The Reality More responsive messages and in-person data collection sound pretty good, right? Merging your brand’s mobile and in-person presence in ways that benefit both. But now it’s almost 2020, and the impact of beacons hasn’t caught up with the hype. A lot of brands have installed beacons in their physical locations, or announced trials of the technology:  Macy’s, Walmart, CVS, and Barney’s to name a few. So why have beacons fallen short of their expectations? Implementing beacons is hard Installing, managing, and maintaining beacons across a large facility is a major task that requires major planning and testing. Even using them in smaller facilities is a monumental undertaking. In a blog on the Brooklyn Museum’s website, Shelley Bernstein, the museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, delved into the issues that her staff dealt with while trying to implement beacons. Bernstein said, “The practicalities have been difficult.” In her experience: Beacons come in limited colours They are too heavy for the adhesive used to keep them in place They lack serial numbers on their cases, making it hard to tell one from another They run on batteries, which have to be replaced often, adding to the expense They work before they’re installed, which means you collect erroneous data While Bernstein does say that beacons have provided some positive value to the museum, she expects to replace the beacons with another location-based technology. 2. Physical objects block beacon signals When retailers were given a survey which asked why they were interested in beacon technology, 65% said that the ability to track their customers aisle by aisle was a major factor in making the choice to implement the technology. While the potential benefit of this technology is clear, the execution is poor. Again, according to Bernstein, her team at the Brooklyn Museum found that beacons’ BLE signals were blocked by physical objects. “The problem is so bad that I can be standing directly beside a beacon on the wall, and will find a stronger signal coming from one across the room,” said Bernstein. To improve the accuracy of the information provided by beacons, extra coding had to be done by the staff at the Brooklyn Museum. No one wants or should have to do that. 3. Customers haven’t been sold on the benefits of beacons According to Tim Zimmerman, research vice president at Gartner, “ many [beacon] projects have failed because the architect was enamored with the mobile application capabilities and back-end application functionality without understanding whether the beacon components could broadcast the right information to the right constituency.” Essentially, beacons have failed because customers have to opt in multiple times for brands to get the full value of their investment. Using beacons in a way that doesn't add value for customers will negatively impact their perception and make it harder for them to buy in. And yes, getting customers to use this technology is a struggle. When asked, 30% of people said that messages, like the push notifications that are triggered by beacons, are “very annoying.” For beacons to become disruptive in the industry, brands must find a way to combat customer skepticism. That hasn't happened yet. (Psst... if you don’t know by now, Mapsted’s indoor navigation technology doesn’t rely on these insufficient beacons. So all the issues that were just mentioned above become completely irrelevant when Mapsted is implemented into your facility. You can thank us later!)

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