Beacons, the Saviour of Retail? Probably Not.

Since Apple launched their iBeacons, a Bluetooth-based proximity channel, some marketers have seen them as the saviour of in-store engagement. Retailers from Macy’s to Tesco’s are trialling the technology. In France, the supermarket chain Carrefour is putting them in 1000 stores. However, beacons present a common digital marketing challenge; technology itself is never a brand marketing solution. In the late 90s nearly $200 million was put into a scanning device called Cue Cat. It was sent to over 1.5m million people in the hope that they would scan bar codes printed in magazines instead of typing in URLs. In spite of the backing from major brands and publishers, the project was a failure. From a user perspective it didn’t solve any problems. When Beacons first launched I wrong a blog, Bluetooth the Revenge, pointing out the limitations of beacons as a marketing technology. The two practical hurdles are that people need an app installed and their Bluetooth turned on. Whenever I have researched it, that number is around 30% of people (there’s some research here). So 70% don’t have their Bluetooth on. For brands, as always, the key is to get the engagement right. They need to give their customers some pretty good reasons to use iBeacons. I’m not sure if giving offers is enough. To get users to engage, brands will need to use it to solve real problems, not just encourage more purchases. There have been a couple of recent studies, that suggest, unsurprisingly, that users don’t want to be stalked by brands in store. Opinion Lab, for example found that 77% of people don’t want to be tracked in shops. Our phones are personal and it seems like we have enough marketing already. My worry with beacons is that they will simply be consigned to the dustbin of technology history. In a few years time will we look back and say ‘do you remember iBeacons’, along with the Apple Newton and the Cue Cat?