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Apple Store’s iBeacon rollout lacks context needed for great experiences

While much has been talked about Apple’s new low-energy Bluetooth technology iBeacon as a way to trigger contextually-relevant messages to in-store shoppers, the manufacturer’s initial testing of the technology in its retail stores focuses more on selling small-ticket accessories and products.

Last week, Apple announced that iBeacons will be used all over the store for different sales and servicing needs. During a recent visit to the New York Apple flagship store on Fifth Avenue, it was clear that Apple’s focus is more on pushing consumers to buy low-cost accessory items versus bigger device sales.

“Just because the technology is there and you can enable it – it’s still better if you bring in context,” said Sheryl Kingstone, Toronto-based research director at Yankee Group.

“I think it’s great, but it’s better if you can put in as much of the ‘you own this, this is why this is worthwhile’ – that’s really hard to do today,” she said. “I still think the context is where the rubber hits the road and until you get to that step, it’s still generic.”

Ms. Kingstone is not affiliated with Apple. She spoke based on her expertise on the subject.

Apple did not respond to press enquiries.

Mobile detection
As consumers walk around the store with the downloaded Apple Store app on their device, they can opt-in to be pinged with targeted messages specific to their exact location within the store.

When a mobile device crosses an iBeacon area for the first time, the Apple Store pushes consumers a welcome message.

After receiving the initial message, a consumer walking by a table of phones may get a push notification prompting them to upgrade their smartphone. Similarly, a consumer getting service help may be pinged with a message when entering the store that notifies them when it is time for their appointment.

The push notification links consumers to the homepage of the Apple Store app, which automatically flips into in-store mode when shoppers are in an Apple Store.

Initially, Apple seems to be focusing more on selling its accessory products via iBeacon.

After spending 45 minutes in the Apple Store on a recent trip, a shopper received multiple push notifications from iBeacon while she was close to the walls of the store where accessories are sold.

The goal with testing the technology around accessories is a smart first step for Apple, since the products tend to be impulse buys and do not require copious amounts of sell time between salespeople and customers.

The push notification nearby to the electronics products read, “Shopping for accessories? Read product reviews and make your purchases right from your iPhone.”

When consumers clickedon the push notification, the app opened to its bar code scanning features. From there, consumers can scan a bar code to learn more about an accessory item or checkout straight from their mobile device by using Apple’s EasyPay feature that lets consumers checkout on their own.

Given that many of the accessories that Apple sells are from other companies, focusing on particular areas that can be used for self-service makes particular sense around the holidays when stores are crammed and consumers are looking to get in and out as quickly as possible.

A screenshot of the push notification nearby to the accessories

How it works
To use iBeacon in Apple’s stores, consumers must first download the Apple Store iPhone or iPad app and make sure that Bluetooth is turned on within their device.

Additionally, consumers need to change the device’s settings so that background app refresh is enabled for the Apple Store app. This can be changed within the general settings of an iPhone or iPad.

During a recent visit to the New York Apple flagship store on Fifth Avenue, iBeacon appeared to work better when connected to the store’s free Wi-Fi than over a mobile network.

One of the main challenges with mobile and in-store is educating consumers on how the technology works.

However, Apple appears to be on the right track in promoting the in-store technology to employees. During the recent visit, an employee knew how and where iBeacon worked within the store.

The employee also helped visitors make sure that their smartphones were set up correctly to receive the iBeacon messages, which are sent via push notifications.

Accessories line the back wall at the New York Apple store

Pay on mobile
At the same time that Apple is rolling out iBeacon, PayPal is also ramping up its own low-energy BlueTooth initiatives.

Earlier this year, PayPal debuted a Beacon technology that lets consumers set up their mobile phones to automatically pay for items in a store without touching the device itself (see story).

The company is testing Beacon at a handful of small mom-and-pop stores in San Francisco, New York and Sydney. The three businesses using the technology are: Telegraphe Café in New York, San Francisco’s food truck company Spice Hut and Get York Coffee in Sydney.

Although Beacons will be tested with several different types of retailers this year, the focus needs to be more on context versus pushing quick sales, per Ms. Kingstone.

“The thing with those accessories is they’re is not a lot of margin in them for them, so to push self-service, think about it as a low-cost channel,” she said. “They want all their employees to either help customers with problems or sell the Macbooks, the iPads, the iPhones – the things that have more margin for them. Those accessories that are in there are gravy, but they’re also small-ticket items.

“If they can make it more of a self-servicing engaging environment and do it well, then they don’t have to worry about having any staff watch that back wall, or wherever the accessories are. I still think they should put it more in information around the iPads and the iPhones, which they will eventually do, but they also want to make sure that they are using their face-to-face communications as more of a value sell from that standpoint.”

Final Take
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York