Halloween was a couple of weeks ago, and that can mean only one thing: The holiday shopping season is now upon us! Holiday lights, decorations and gifts have already been spotted on the shelves of many retailers, and that will only ramp up to a frenzy over the next few weeks.
Many consumers will take advantage of mobile payments as they shop, helped in no small part by Apple Pay. But while mobile payments are a good alternative to cash and credit card payments at the point of sale, they don’t change the actual in-store shopping experience. That is unless you combine them with location-aware beacons, which so far have offered more hype than substance.
The main selling point of beacons is location. For any signal to get through to a phone, a user has to be standing in very close proximity to where the transmission is originating. So unlike apps that generate coupons or offers for use once someone is in the store – if they ever make it there – beacons send deals to people who are already within feet of the merchandise in question.
Apple, which rolled out its iBeacon as a major feature of iOS7 in 2013 and enabled it in all of its U.S. retail stores in time for holiday shopping last year, is doing for location-based technology what it’s done for mobile payments but so far general uptake has been slow with only a scant 1 percent of the more than 3.6 million retail locations in the U.S. taking advantage of beacon technology.
One reason is that a companion mobile app is required for a retailer to communicate with customer devices. Customers also need to enable Bluetooth, something many users are loathe to do because of the drain on the phone’s batteries, and activate location services, which many users avoid so they can’t be tracked.
So retailers have their job cut out for them on customer education. With any kind of opt-in model, it’s up to the user to decide that there’s a benefit and value to what beacons can provide, and that onus is on the merchant.
Another concern for consumers is privacy. With breaches of credit card information, email addresses and other personal details becoming a common occurrence, actually giving permission to stores to reach out directly to customers could be seen as inviting trouble. To allay fears, retailers have to create clear use policies – much like they do on their web sites – on what data is collected and how it’s used and protected.
Companies like Gimbal, Estimote and others are also working with retailers and other types of businesses to leverage beacon technology. But so far we’re mostly seeing trials and a few wider spread rollouts. Businesses ranging from traditional holiday retailers like Macy’s and Lord & Taylor to hotels, airports and even most Major League Baseball parks are all using beacons in some capacity. Whether customers go the extra steps required to take advantage of it is still up in the air; but if they do it’ll make for one happy holiday shopping season for everyone.