• Wednesday , 27 October 2021

Beacons and sensors: now essential retail technologies?

The Covid-19 pandemic has given a lot of impetus to beacons and sensors, installed as key components of AV solutions designed to generate touchless, and automatic responses or reporting. In this feature, AV News examines the elements of beacon and sensor technologies and asks why adoption, to date at least, been so patchy?

Beacons are small, wireless transmitters that use low-energy Bluetooth technology to send signals to other smart devices in the locality. The technology is mature, relatively inexpensive and has a range of proven applications. So why have these key elements in proximity marketing been so slow to catch the imagination of retailers and marketeers?

We can make a comparison with sensors to highlight the issue: sensors have seen a comparatively rapid adoption. with the technology joining the digital signage mainstream last year, with its adoption by one of the market leaders in players. BrightSign. At a local level, sensors have a wide range of functions. from simple motion detection through to data collection. A motion sensor is a device that detects movement, mainly of people or objects and stimulates an appropriate response.

Earlier this year, BrightSign and Nexmosphere announced that they were to partner to create “new retail experiences” BrightSign players were to be integrated with touchless technologies, showcasing the future of interactivity.

Bricks and mortar reinvigorated

This is significance of the announcement is that BrightSign is the global market leader in digital signage media players. BrightSign players were to be integrated with Nexmosphere technology as a solution to help tempt customers back into bricks and mortar retail stores as they reopen. The solutions, demonstrated online and at ISE 2021, enable customer interactivity with touchless technology using sensors to deliver engaging, memorable and hygienic shopping experiences.

To enable touchless navigation of digital content on screen, the new Nexmosphere XT-EF650 AirGesture sensor has been integrated with BrightSign players to register hand swipes. In addition, the AirButton feature detects when a customer’s hand enters or leaves the sensor’s detection field. Installation is simplified with various sizes available, adjustable sensitivity and auto-calibration. Capacitive sensing technology allows the sensor to be placed behind or below any non-metal surface.

Another product integrated with BrightSign players is the Nexmosphere XY-240 presence sensor featuring AirButton functionality. This Time-of-Flight sensor registers not only the presence of a customer in front of an installation, but also their distance from it. The AirButton sensor delivers touchless user input functionality, allowing the viewer to control their experience effectively and hygienically.

BrightSign players have also been integrated with Nexmosphere’s XC-700 controllers featuring LightMark, LED control allowing the ambient lighting to be controlled in tune with the digital signage presentation. Interfaced to Nexmosphere XC-700 series controllers with LightMark interfaces, BrightSign players can control multiple Pixel LED strips, RGBW LED strips or optical audio switching.

LightMark LED technology allows for the selection of one of many pre-programmed animation patterns with flexibility to adapt these to suit an installation. The X-Talk interface allows for easy connection with a range of sensors, buttons or other components to create an interactive experience with no additional setup required.

Beacon applications

Given the mainstream interest in sensor applications, why is the use of beacons seeming to lag behind? There is nothing inherently complex or difficult about the structure if a beacon. Mott contain a CPU, radio, and batteries, and it work by repeatedly broadcasting an identifier. The identifier is picked up by a suitable device, often a mobile phone. and flags a location in the local environment. The identifier is a unique ID number which the smartphone recognises as unique to the beacon. Once connected, the beacon will automatically carry out whatever function it has been programmed to perform.

It is important to recognise that the technology is not all that new: Apple claimed a lead with the incorporation of beacon technology in iPhone 7. In 2015 Google launched Eddystone, a platform-agnostic competitor to Apple’s iBeacon. Eddystone is designed to provide location-based content to smartphones. Being compatible across platforms, it aims to encourage developers to work with beacon technology.

Now, by connecting the signals of a beacon to a Google Ads account, users can gain a lot of useful insight into offline activity and may even help track in-store visits. This means that when Google search ads are served, it may be possible to attribute the number of online users that walk into appropriate stores.

Emerging retail applications

Traditionally, it has been a marketer’s nightmare to understand how their online marketing efforts are linked to offline activity in stores. By tracking key interaction points of users that have clicked on digital ads, retailers can understand how effective digital ads are at driving customers and sales to stores.

By installing beacons in stores, attribution modelling is automatically improved. By logging actual store visits associated with searched ads, beacon technology can help build understanding of the impact and effectiveness of ads. If ads are driving lots of visits to the stores, further investment can be justified. However, if few users are following up their initial interest with a store visit, there might not be a large enough ROI from the ads. Gathering as much data as possible will help direct the strategy.

Initially the biggest selling point of beacon technology, out of store marketing. hasn’t taken off as much as people expected. Any information that potential customers need to know can be transmitted directly to any receptive devices that are within the range of the beacon. This could be a simple alert to notify the user that they are within range of a shop. Alternatively, the alert could be something more complex, like sending messages about discounts, loyalty programs, and competitions. Brands can also push individual product discounts using their partner’s in-store beacons.

Proximity marketing growth

With mobiles now an integral part of everyday life, proximity marketing will only continue to grow. Therefore, implementing it effectively it will add another dimension to a digital strategy. The positional accuracy beacons can give is up for debate, but it is clear that this Bluetooth technology is an improvement on other proximity technologies like GPS and Wi-Fi. With this greater accuracy, more reliable information on how and where customers are moving throughout the store.

Combined with ecommerce stats, the beacon data can be used to adapt and improve product listings and in-store layout. If the majority of customers are spending time browsing the homeware section at the back of the store, perhaps this area could be expanded or brought to the front. Ultimately this data could help retailers refine the customer journey, tailor future marketing campaigns and boost your in-store conversions.

Why so slow?

Beacon technology is undoubtedly an asset for brick-and-mortar stores. Retail giants, such as Urban Outfitters, Macy’s, and Target, are already on board. The global beacon technology market is predicted to grow from $1.17 billion in 2018 to $10.2 billion in 2024.

Beacons are small wireless battery-run sensors that send Bluetooth low energy (BLE) signals to nearby mobile devices. The signals are picked up by the store app if installed on those devices. When the app detects the beacon, it sends location-specific information to the store’s server, such as products or the department the customer has just passed by. This data, paired with other details in the customer’s profile, triggers specific actions, for example, sending highly personalized promotions prompting visitors to make a purchase.

Since the technology was first released by Apple in 2013. its proliferation in many industries has been ever-increasing. Beacons are placed in public transport, airports, hotels, museums, hospitals, and billboards. Although BLE is not the only proximity solution used in retail software development, it is by far the most popular. Its short-distance range of operation has been developed into an advantage. While cell towers, Wi-Fi, and GPS can accurately detect device location up to 5 meters, beacons can detect users’ locations precisely, down to centimetres. They use little energy and work well indoors.

By now, there are quite a few platforms that give developers all the tools and resources they need to build their own beacon-based solutions tailored to retail IoT use cases. Google launched its own beacon technology, Google Beacon Platform, and the open-source Eddystone, which solved many beacon development and implementation problems. It changed a ‘one-beacon-one-action’ formula to ‘one-beacon-multiple-actions’. Plus, thanks to the compatibility of Eddystone with Android, iOS, and other BLE platforms, as well as different types of broadcast packets and APIs, many beacon manufacturers develop devices around the Eddystone functionality.

Roller-coaster ride

Fir reasons we will explain, beacons have enjoyed a roller-coaster popularity in retail. When the technology was all the rage, many stores prioritized its application. However, the hype soon subsided: As businesses rushed to try new beacon technology, many failed to deploy it efficiently or understand how to properly use the data they generated. As a result, customers didn’t get how beacons can be helpful and switched to other sources of information, which led to a low ROI for some od the early adopters.

Consequently, beacons haven’t started a retail revolution. However, with the world shifting to being ‘mobile-first’, beacon technology now plays a significant role for brick-and-mortar customer experience. Shoppers rely heavily on the notifications coming from their devices, and retailers are starting to use beacons as a bridge between the offline and online realms.

Now, beacons provide businesses with the unique ways to learn more about their customers and engage with them on a whole different level. As a link between mobile devices, applications, and back-office systems, beacons can play a pivotal role in retail business intelligence.

Beacons let their adopters gather data on:

  • Areas of the store that receive the most and least foot traffic
  • Employees’ movements on the sales floor and in the stock rooms
  • Levels of shopper engagement with various categories/items of merchandise
  • Details about first-time and repeat customers
  • Resource utilisation in-store and throughout the supply chain

Large supermarkets and department stores can ne overwhelming for shoppers. They can’t find what they came for, wander aimlessly among the aisles, and end up buying something they don’t really need, potentially increasing product return rates. Beacons can solve this logistical issue by guiding customers around the shopping premises. For this, customers could just open the store app and immediately see where they are located, search for a particular item’s location, and ask for a direction.

Leveraging proximity marketing

One of the major beacon use cases is sending promotional notifications to passing-by customers to prompt them to visit the store and make a purchase. Such notifications can be general and serve as an ad, or be highly personalized, relying on the customer’s previous shopping history and matching it to the current visit. For example, if a customer has some items in their online shopping cart, the beacon can send a notification about a personal discount for one of the items.

The same tactic works for in-store shoppers. Beacons can trigger notifications about promotions when a customer passes by a particular department or product section. Beacons can also be used to notify passers-by about in-store events, such as food sampling or a makeup tutorial. People are more likely to visit such an event when they are nearby rather than when learning about it at home.

Downsides

This all sounds good but there are still some challenges to be resolved in

beacon technology. Beacon signals are easily reflected or absorbed depending on the surrounding materials or proximity of other beacons. This can turn some parts of the store into blind spots. As a result, beacons can push irrelevant notifications. One more issue is the timing of notifications. Due to fluctuations in Bluetooth signal strength as well as intermittent work of cell phone antennas and beacon signals, some notifications can come with a delay, which kills their relevance and the overall concept of continuous experience.

Retail and the AI alternative

PPDS has collaborated with industry leaders to bring AI-driven Philips digital signage and analytics solutions to retail market for more targeted shopping experiences.  Through a partnership between PPDS, Intel, Advantech and Navori Labs state-of-the-art digital display and camera technology with the latest intelligent software analytic innovations to breathe new life into the retail shopping experience.

PPDS has announced a new collaboration with leading hardware and computer vision software providers, Intel, Advantech and Navori Labs, for the creation of the PPDS Intelligent Signage Solution for Retail. Bringing a bundled, trusted and proven solution to system integrators and retailers for easy installation and straightforward integration into stores.

Continuing PPDS’ Total Solutions strategy – and its ongoing efforts to support the retail market through world-first innovations – the PPDS Intelligent Signage Solution for Retail is a revolutionary AI-powered digital signage solution that combines Philips digital signage with intelligent context-aware software and camera technologies. Delivering unparalleled data-driven insights to high street retailers for enhanced, more targeted customer experiences resulting in greater return on investment.

Designed to take the customer’s omnichannel strategy to the next level and to create an experience unachievable online, the solution enables retailers to make smarter, more informed business decisions, using advanced analytics based on the store’s activities throughout the day, week, month or even year.

Artificial intelligence / Personal shopper

Compatible with PPDS’s Philips P-Line* 24/7 digital signage range for indoor environments (42”-55”) and connected with the store’s choice of on-board ethernet or wi-fi, the solution harnesses Advantech’s integrated DS-200 SDM-L Smart Display Module computer platform, powered by Intel vPro technology that can be used to manage the unit remotely. These are brought together with the award-winning Aquaji smart AI-computer vision driven software platform for marketing analytics, and QL CMS software used to manage the display contents, both from Navori Labs.

Available as a cloud-based solution (SaaS) or as an on-premises version hosted on your own hardware, the plug and play ‘Navori Aquaji’ software analyses video feeds from embedded or IP-based cameras strategically placed around the store. These produce anonymous marketing data and comparable metrics based on foot-traffic and people’s physical features* (up to 98 per cent accuracy) – including gender – which are delivered on an intuitive and fully featured dashboard assessable on any computer.

The information can be used to deliver unique, bespoke, targeted content and marketing to help drive sales. Alternatively, content can be easily created and scheduled, based on the data analytics, such as during times where a specific demographic, or group, ie. sports fans are historically more prevalent. The solution is GDPR friendly, 100 per cent anonymous and doesn’t perform facial recognition. No images or video are ever stored on the system.

Other benefits of the PPDS Intelligent Signage Solution for Retail include:

  • Know your customers: Measure footfall counts excluding staff and classify each guest based on their attributes (gender and age range).
  • Time in store and waiting time: Determine the time spent in line and time spent before receiving service. This data is used for queue optimisation.
  • Attention span: Calculate each shopper’s field of vision in relation to any monitored area or digital signage screen for audience assessment and proof-of-performance analytics.
  • Proactive: Anticipate foot traffic and demand based on comparable data over time.
  • Staff where and when you need them: Optimise staffing levels to meet peak hour demand.
  • Store design: Manage shelf layout to ensure an easy flow to the right marketplace and product.

Instant results

The tried and tested Navori Aquaji platform comes with an impressive success record for retailers, with one store reporting a 42 per cent increase in impulse product selling, thanks to a triggered targeted customer promotional offer. Another retailer reported up to a 26 per cent increase in entrance traffic due to the presence of in-store displays, using targeted marketing, while a department store improved customer satisfaction, reducing its waiting time by 35 per cent on weekend peak hours by implanting extra ambulatory cashiers.

Chris Colpaert, General Manager at PPDS, commented: “There has never been a more important time for retailers to attract customers back to the high street and to seize every sales opportunity. Every store is different and every customer is different, so the marketing that works for one person may not for another. Take into account age and gender, and you’re almost certainly alienating a high percentage of the people entering a store. With our advanced Philips digital signage and our industry-leading partnerships with Intel, Advantech and Navori Labs, we’re reducing the odds of failure and increasing sales opportunities for retailers, while making the experience for customers a smarter and more tailored one.”

He continued: “This solution will bring retailers the tools to improve their customers’ journey and experience by analysing the data and implementing the right content to the right person at the right moment and in the right place. This is a game-changer for the retail industry, whether you’re a single small corner shop or an international retailer.”

Tim de Ruiter, International Business Manager, PPDS, concluded: “This solution is a revolution for retailers, allowing them to manage content confidently, knowing that it’s timely, on target and accurate. By selecting the gender and age frame, the retailer can be sure that only one group will see a specific promotion.

“Helping our retail end customers to make their jobs as hassle-free as possible helps our system integrators to differentiate their own service. So, helping them to track whether content receives attention, and to be able to adjust it within the timeframe of the promotion to make it more attractive, is a real bonus. The data helps them to make the right decisions and they can clearly see the impact of their decisions with the results. It’s a virtuous loop.”

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