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Next Store: Making Waves

How beacons are impacting the retail experience




I recently embarked on my annual pilgrimage to the NRF Big Show in New York. This, on the heels of the CES show in Las Vegas, where yet another round of technology debuted on the world stage. These two trade fairs’ exhibitors are working to advance the store experience and help define the “next store” that you and I will be designing.

With all the fantastical devices and transactional systems running the supply chain and content management systems, it’s a device that fits into the palms of our hands that’s stirring the experiential-retail pot like no other. Our friends at Apple command the best moniker – “iBeacon” – that has become the de facto industry term. While small in size, it’s a powerful tool with the capability to deliver a memorable store experience to your clients and their customers.

The beacon is an aptly named instrument that allows a mobile device to receive personalized information from a store, while serving as a source of information empowering the consumer.

A beacon’s additional layer of information extends the story of the brand and its intended experience. A beacon – much like a static sign – is well-aligned to the age of on-demand information expectations by the customer, but now on their preferred device – the mobile.

Why, as store designers, should we care or take notice? With the already-booming presence of mobile devices – in the pockets of almost every customer – the beacon is a perfect example of an innovation that easily aligns with existing technology.

Presently, beacons benefit the customer in three primary ways: by encouraging discovery, communicating sales and promotions, and sharing the brand story. Graphics and digital elements play a critical role in the store environment – communicating the brand and educating and enticing the consumer into a transactional mindset. We know that almost everyone carries a smartphone today, though much of what we design has not yet tapped into extending that story. The beacon device supports this and, at least for the foreseeable future, dominates the store design horizon.


Imagine that each of your wayfinding signs has a beacon installed within. This allows you to provide your client “smart” maps that not only facilitate the customer journey, but give the merchant the ability to fully understand the paths taken. Could a beacon be placed on each fixture and activate as the merchandise plan unfolds? What about the fitting room?  This is what I love about technology: it provides us smarter solutions to influence business and space planning in ways that observational tools alone cannot.

How does a beacon work? The device basically features a small ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) computer, a Bluetooth Smart connectivity module, an antenna and a tiny battery; each beacon includes firmware (software installed that runs the parameters for security and sensor data). The antenna broadcasts electromagnetic waves, creating a perfectly spherical field that helps minimize “dead spots” in the broadcast range. 

The Bluetooth Smart module is for communication, and most likely, you’re already using Bluetooth in your car or other devices. For the sake of energy efficiency, the ability to broadcast data is very limited. Hence, a beacon “blinks” on and off, just like a mobile phone, and creates a more reliable detection. As a beacon broadcasts its data, it’s also creating a range at which the device can communicate with your mobile and the store’s application installed on your phone.

The coverage of a beacon’s information zone is as important in planning and consideration as a lighting plan. Having a plan and strategy in place is essential, so beacon activation is aligned with the visual experience around the customer. Focal points, fitting rooms, checkout, service desk, and the like, can all be potential zones, but you’d want to make sure the beacon’s position and information is triggered in the right place for maximum impact.

Based on client strategy, we need to determine how the “beacon story” will unfold and when. The beacon manufacturer’s SDK (software developer kit) is built on core location standards that allow us to create tiers of experience zones that are triggered as the mobile device moves through the environment. These zones also help track the customer’s movements. Key analytics are a benefit that will contribute to the building-tracking layer that brands seek in the competitive retail market. The inherent sensing capability creates a graph from the user’s behaviors, apps on their device and location history. Data gathering is a key benefit, allowing predictive analytics to customize the consumer experience even further for subsequent visits.

Indoor location metrics are evolving and are far from perfect. However, look to the development of improved SDK capabilities to drive a new level of accuracy. This will become important to the client, where movement accuracy is paramount; imagine knowing which side of an aisle the mobile was on when the beacon was triggered. Overlap this with the merchandising matrix and you’ll have a wider understanding of the customer journey.


One of the beauties of location-based strategies is that the software allows us to create the magical “geo-fence,” in order to determine the extent to which a beacon will trigger when a phone crosses the boundary: the neighborhood, the mall parking lot, the store, the department. And when the phone crosses that “line,” it’s triggered and communicates with a cloud computing service for relevant content, crafted for the customer. 

Privacy, of course, is determined by the customer with opt in/opt out controls, and is a key part of the overall user experience. Look for a credible privacy certification as an indicator that the beacon software is following key security protocols. 

While no retailer wants the customer’s attention monopolized by a smartphone, we must recognize that, for now, the mobile device is a dominant communication tool that continues to develop – and one that offers designers new opportunities to enhance the brand experience. 

Beacons benefit the customer in three primary ways: by encouraging discovery, communicating sales and promotions, and sharing the brand story.

Brian Dyches is partner and director, digital strategy & experience design at OpenEye Global, a strategy, design and consulting studio headquartered in South Amboy, N.J. 




MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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