Where are all the Beacons?

For the past year there have been loudening murmurs about beacons in the marketing and technology industries, brought to the forefront last week with news of Asda’s beacon trials. These small transmitters, which use Bluetooth to detect a nearby device, are of potentially great significance. In essence, when a smartphone comes into the beacon’s range, it triggers content to be sent to that phone and the user will receive a notification. Predictably, the company with the most alluring take on the technology is Apple, with the surprisingly named “iBeacon”. Where it betters NFC’s achievements is in its range: iBeacon signals stretch for up to 50 metres, compared to the 8 or so inches of reach from NFC. And it uses Bluetooth 4.0 which, most advantageously for marketers, doesn’t require devices to be paired with the beacon.
Understandably, beacons have generated much hype and excitement within the industry about the potential to target shoppers in such a finely targeted way and at such opportune moments- geographically and temporally. Stores can send vouchers, offers, news and product updates straight to a customer’s hand. Martin Shellaker of the Guardian proclaimed excitedly:
“iBeacons have the potential to change our shopping experience forever. So watch this space- 2014 promises to be the year of the iBeacon.”

Well, has it been? Not really. Asda recently installed a few beacons in stores and at its HQ to get a feel for it and demonstrate how it would work. One nifty concept showed Asda’s prices compared to those of the supermarket rivals. But head of partnership marketing, Nick Bamber, pointedly said that the programme won’t be widely rolled out or consumer-facing in the coming year. Earlier this year, Tesco in Chelmsford tried out iBeacons, but pulled the plug- deciding that it was too soon, and customers needed to get more accustomed to the technology.

So why the seeming reticence? Surely this direct and pertinent communication stream between brands/shops and the consumers is the holy grail of shopper marketing. It may well be largely a case of brands needing to adjust to new technology before imparting it to the audience, but it’s likely that it is the unnerving potential for beacons to bombard consumers that is causing considerable caution and hesitation. No shopper wishes to be inundated with notifications of offers, news and items just because they unwittingly wandered into the vicinity of a beacon. The challenge is on for agencies and brands to quickly identify the most exciting and productive uses of beacons, that will tread the fine line of exciting as well as informing and attracting the shoppers. If this compromise can be cracked, this technology has the power to perpetually transform and enrich retail experiences for the both the consumer and the brand.