IBeacons 101: How Today’s Mobile Technology Is Seamlessly Integrating With In-Store Retail

With the recent release of Apple’s new iPhone 5S now finding its way into the pockets of consumers, much of the fanfare surrounding its new features mostly had to do with fingerprint scanners and other hardware updates. One addition that managed to stay under the radar is the device’s integration with iBeacon technology.

While few people have even heard of an iBeacon, it may change in-store retail in some very big ways sooner than we think. Put simply, iBeacons provide a platform for brands to connect with their customers in a variety of ways by linking mobile phones with transmitters installed into stores. Some of these new features may seem to some as something out of a sci-fi movie, but as some retailers have already begun to develop and integrate this technology into their locations, it’s important for those looking to innovate to get ahead of the curve before it’s old news.

Let’s explore exactly what this new technology is and how it might be used within retail.

What is an iBeacon?

The “iBeacon” moniker as you might have already guessed, is a branded title created by Apple to connote their specific hardware found in the new iPhone 5S in conjunction with their newest iOS. While iBeacons may technically mean a brand-specific title, the beacons use a common wireless connection, which has been used in products for many years now. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is the means of connection between the physical beacon––a small piece of hardware placed onto a wall or table––and the mobile device being carried by the customer.

If you’ve used Bluetooth technology in the past, this concept of close proximity wireless connection shouldn’t be radically new. Just like a wireless telephone earpiece could be connected and synced wirelessly to your cellphone and vehicle, iBeacons transmit a steady low-energy signal to a relatively small area around it.

When someone with a smartphone or other mobile device enters its signal area, information programmed to the iBeacon appears on the customers’ screen. For retailers, this can mean product information, quick access to user reviews, sale opportunities, related product listings, and social media integration among other possibilities.

Who is using them and how are they being used?

While Apple may be on top of the smartphone side of the technology, the market is still open for a tech company to take the reigns on developing the gold standard of in-store beacons. One company moving forward with BLE-enabled beacons is Estimote.

From a functional standpoint, these devices have a range short enough to allow multiple devices be used separate of one another. The idea as outlined in their promotional video, would mean instead of a single beacon dedicated to all of the store’s products, a customer could access multiple beacons as they traverse the store. Buy-one-get-one-free belts would have their own device while the clearance undergarments operated on a completely different system.

Paypal is also joining in with a Beacon of their own. Unlike Estimote’s, Paypal’s devices area geared to round out the customer’s shopping experience to include the purchasing process as well. With Paypal beacons installed into a store, a customer with a corresponding account could pick up a product and purchase it without a need to visit the checkout counter.

What does this mean for the future of retail customer experience?

iBeacons themselves won’t change retail––how retailers decide to use this technology is what will shape the future for customers. Since the technology is already finding its way into the hands of consumers, it’s up to retailers to adopt the beacons into a convenient system.

As we’ve seen with other recent omnichannel developments however, when customers begin to value a new convenience, it quickly develops into an expectation they project onto other retailers. With this in mind, it’s important to at the very least, stay engaged and up-to-date on the development of this technology. While it has yet to integrate into our everyday shopping experiences, it’s far better to get ahead of the curve rather than find yourself struggling to follow your competitors.