Queueless Shopping

Queueless Shopping

Smart User and the Emerging Smart Uses

Indoors! That’s where most of the early adopter smartphone lugging humans spend their time today. Most retail outlets are indoors too. So, can a retail store communicate to a smart phone relaying that there are business deals in the offing to woo potential customers to strike a deal? Can a smart device be put to newer and smarter uses? Enter the Beacon: Typically the size of a kiwi fruit cut in half, the beacon is a low cost piece of hardware that is affixed indoors to a wall or any physical space, predominantly in retail outlets. Powered by a battery, the beacon transmits information using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to smartphones and tablets in the vicinity. The app in the smart device processes this and permits a consumer to interact with a retail outlet for offers, deals, discounts, and even payment.

Jack and the Beacon Stalk

Since more and more consumers are using their smart devices in retail stores, airports, hospitality centers like hotels and restaurants, several hardware manufacturers have started fabricating beacons that will cater to the proliferating market of indoor mobile communication. When a consumer walks into a mall, armed with his smartphone, and enters the beacon’s range, it immediately senses this and sends a push notification to the device. The app in the device interrogates these signals, passively checks into the store’s Point of Sale (POS) system and does an invisible handshake. Location specific data from the beacon in the form of customized coupons and/or navigation directions flashes on the screen. If the consumer makes a purchase, the items are stored in the shopping cart and the price is displayed on the POS of the store clerk. After the check out, the sale is posted to the customer’s mobile payment account. The identity is established and the payment is made.

What You Can Do With Beacons

The good news for DIY enthusiasts is that it is not impossible to make your own beacon. All you need is a Raspberry Pi, an open source tool, e.g., bluez, a Bluetooth stack for Linux, libusb, and a couple of helper libraries and a keen and curious mind. Arduino boards can be fashioned as an alternative to iBeacons as well. For the non-tinkerers, there’s good news too. Expecting the market to literally explode, several manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and have started fabricating beacons.

Manufacturers to watch out for are the biggie QualComm which is offering Gimbal. Gimbal’s range is 50 meters but its battery life is only 2-3 months. Though a robust product, it could prove expensive because of the license fee. PayPal’s beacon enhances store entry, loyalty, and fine-tuned targeting to a considerable extent. Paypal’s USB stick enables hands-free checkout via a voice-activated app. Swirl’s devices do away with the need for additional hardware or network infrastructure. One can affix the small battery-powered beacon anywhere to deliver targeted messages, content or offers to consumer’s smartphones. GPShopper beacons can be in “reporting only” mode where they do not broadcast messages. They then track movements near specific stores which in turn allows for more detailed analytics on floor traffic.

Estimote is one of the largest and most well-known beacon manufacturers, with more than 10.000 developer kits already distributed. BlueCats, an Australian company manufactures cat-shaped beacons that have two AA batteries that are easily replaceable with a mounting plate that makes it easy to connect them to the wall. They also provide an SDK and Data Analysis. BlueSense provides complete retail beacons as well as integration kits. The integration kits can be placed behind paintings. Gelo offers solid all-weather beacons, GlimWorm beacons are nicely designed, can be rebranded, the code is open source. They offer 3D printed beacons. Kontakt beacons can be customized with the preferred choice of brand and color. They also have an extensive back-end and CMS. Sensorberg manufactures mini beacons that have a range of 30 meters. This makes them suitable for places where many beacons have to be placed in close proximity to each other such as a Supermarket. SonicNotify beacons are compatible with more than just iOS7 phones because of its combination with audio technology. This means that 95% of the smartphones are compatible with their beacons.

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Apple – The ‘Spear’ Leader

The biggest fish in the beacon pond is Apple. Speculation is rife as to which way Apple will go. Apple has surreptitiously departed from the usual by embracing NFC technology giving some indication that it may part ways with the beacon seeds it had sown in earlier releases. Apple’s NFC move is smart; by leveraging existing in-store NFC terminals for ApplePay. Apple’s wireless sensors are called iBeacons -- millions of Apple devices intrinsically have transmitters and receivers built into them that function as iBeacons. The iOS8 mobile operating system has also been programmed to support iBeacons.

NFC is also gradually transforming the shopping experiences of consumers in many parts of the world. Customers register for the loyalty program of the store which provides special discounts for members and delivers personalized promotions right onto the customers’ handsets.

In the store, NFC tags are placed in front of products on shop shelves. Customers touch their phones to the tag and the product information will be displayed on the mobile handset of the customer. When customers finish shopping they can just simply request the invoice into their mobile handset, and without lining up in front of the cashier they can just make their payment by tapping their handset on the retailer’s POS terminal. The total amount payable is transmitted securely via NFC to the payment terminal after the consumer’s credentials are automatically extricated from the smartphone’s memory. This queue less “tapping” feature is what makes the NFC application so popular, fast and convenient.

The Emerging Status Quo

In the future, implementations will spread beyond retail applications. Beacon technology will likely be used in airports, educational institutions, harbors, transit systems, railway stations, enterprises and even in home automations. With considerable confusion and uncertainty around new and emerging technologies, it is natural to want to pick winners that will saturate the market eventually. However, most incremental technologies can successfully co-exist or even complement each other. With BLE, it is possible to pinpoint location, transfer data over more than just a few inches/feet. NFC on the other hand supports functionalities that BLE can’t: authentication, support for specific card payment rules, and so on.

The industry would benefit immensely by focusing efforts on creating rich and smooth consumer experiences that leverage these emerging technologies.

About the Author

Krishna Kumar is a Tech/Soft Skill Trainer, Musician and a Songwriter

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