Sounding Board: Zeroing in on shoppers

Via a free app, iBeacons can send messages to shoppers, in-store, about new products, promotions and special pricing.

You have just spent a few hundred thousand dollars on a brand spanking new loyalty marketing program and partnered with a data analytics company that is going to tell you all about your customers and create the ultimate in personalized shopping.Len Lewis

How do you feel about it being obsolete before the check clears?

That is a bit exaggerated, but if you want to unleash your inner-geek and peek into retailing’s future, take a look at micro-location technologies out of Silicon Valley and from our customer-centric friends at Disney that are personalizing the shopping trip at a whole new level.

Recently, about 200 Safeway and Giant Eagle supermarkets began testing iBeacons. It was developed by Apple, which is using about 20 iBeacons in some of its own stores and using an app from InMarket.

This falls into the category of “augmented reality” which works through the customers’ mobile devices. It eliminates the need for the large capital outlays that have probably done more to hold back progress in retail technology then anything else.

iBeacons is a low-energy Bluetooth transmitter about the size of a quarter with an adhesive back that can be placed at a store’s entrance or on a shelf. Customers simply download a free app and the transmitter will “wake up” their cell phone as they walk in the door.

Once inside, it maps the shoppers location to within a few feet, guiding them through the store and beaming over messages about new products, promotions and special pricing. It is said to be far more efficient than standard GPS tracking systems, which do not work well indoors and have trouble distinguishing between locations that are just a few feet apart.

The jury will be out for a while on whether iBeacons will revolutionize grocery shopping. But this “mobile-to-mortar” technology can change the way people interact with places and products and enhance the shopping experience.

A similar idea comes from Accenture Technology Labs, the San Jose, Calif.-based company that has developed Accenture Augmented Reality Shopping or WeShop. I spoke recently with Mike Redding, managing director of the lab who described it as an overlay to the real world—something that is meant to complement the shopping experience, not replace it.

It is designed to help shoppers get the most out of their visit by helping them with lists; recognizing whether they like yogurt and ask if they have tried a new item they are passing; encouraging them to try a store brand; or, checking their digital shopping list or menu planner to make sure they did not forget an item they need. Quite simply, it may keep you from losing a sale to another store.

Imagine if shoppers do not have to pore over labels to find out about drug interactions or if a product fits into their dietary requirements. Through a profile and past purchases WeShop knows everything about consumers and their families.

The ultimate in advanced customer analytics is taking place at Disney’s theme parks with its recently introduced RFID-equipped MagicBand. Of course, it has the Mickey Mouse insignia on it and is coded to each visitor. It can build an itinerary and track them wherever they go in the park. It knows what, where and when visitors eat, what items they have purchased in the gift shop, what rides they are going on and whether they are having a birthday.

These new data sciences, and the analysts behind the curtain, are all working to keep guests in the park longer, spending more money and being happy about it. If that is not the essence of retailing I do not know what is.

In the past, many retailers have been understandably reluctant to take on new technologies, or at least be early adopters, because of the massive capital outlays involved. But mobile devices are becoming smarter and cheaper by the day with free, consumer-friendly apps that should be part of every retailer’s marketing plan.

What we are looking at here is the next step in the customized shopping experience. What has yet to be determined if it will be a help, hazard or intrusion.

Len Lewis can be reached at, or at

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