Beacons and Smartphones: A Retailing Revolution?

Here’s how Beacons can interact with your smartphone in stores to open up a world of product and service information.

Facebook and others are developing tiny beacon technology that can interact with apps on your smartphone to bring up a wealth of product and service information. Problem is, retailers and consumers are not quite sure how to use beacons in a coordinated, meaningful way that helps people get things done.

Beacons 101

Beacons are  tiny,  inexpensive devices that broadcast Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals to nearby smartphones.  Stuck to a wall or hidden under a table, beacons simply tell your smartphone to open content from the Web (or in an app) . Content examples may include ads, coupons, videos, etc.

Promises and Problems

As a consumer, beacon technology could provide a wealth of contextual information that is valuable when making purchasing decisions, things like comparison ratings with similar products, information about how to use the product, etc.  However, there are a few hurdles to using beacons, including:

  • Your smartphone must have its Bluetooth turned on to use beacons
  •  You need to run a specific app on your smartphone that interacts with the beacon.  That could mean that you need a different app for each store you visit, which is an unlikely proposition at best
  • The content that appears on your phone may be marketing fluff as opposed to trusted contextual information that you actually need
  • The tiny devices could become intrusive if consumers feel they are being bombarded by unwanted offers or content that is not trustworthy and balanced

On the plus side, beacon technology can be used to deliver highly contextual, relevant information that is tailored to the user’s exact location. Examples are limited only to one’s imagination, but can include maps, trusted product and service reviews, check-ins, service requests, event information, special promotions, etc.

Big Companies Weigh In

Apple, Paypal and Facebook are just a few of the big companies that are excited about the technology, as are a slew of scrappy startups.  Google is bullish on beacons too. 

It may be that beacon technology eventually become part of our personal technology ecosystem, integrated with our Facebook app, Paypal wallets, Apple hardware or Google Android OS.

But perhaps the greatest challenge to these tiny devices will be content. Today most consumers use their smartphones in stores to access a wealth of product and service information via the web. Beacon technology will have to improve upon that experience to become relevant, or risk becoming a cheap sales and marketing tool that offers little value.

Images by Curiousmatic


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