Apple just announced that it will switch on iBeacons in 254 of its retail stores. The near field communications device, which I wrote about in our December issue, has the potential to mediate in-store experiences, giving information, discounts, and directions to consumers. Apple has announced that the main function of its iBeacons will be to notify consumers of a product’s availability, perhaps thinking of the dozens of people who wait in line for their new products. So far, the announcement has made more of a buzz in tech circles, not among consumers, at least according to my scan of recent tweets about iBeacon. As more retailers come out with iBeacon-enabled shopping experiences, that should change—it’s just a question about how soon.
Four Things to know about iBeacon:
1. 74 percent of iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch users have upgraded to iOS7, according to data from Apple. And it took just three months. That means that 74 percent of iPhone users can use iBeacons. Newer Androids also have the ability to use near field communications (NFC), and a few software tweaks will help make them compatible with iBeacons.
2. iPhones and iPads can be iBeacon receivers and transmitters. This little-known fact was recently pointed out by TechCrunch, surprising even the expert they interviewed. iBeacon has mostly been talked about as a system of fixed, cheap beacons that could pinpoint location and give messaging based on that information. But if an iPad could also be a transmitter, for example, it might alert a consumer to the presence of a store associate who could help them or ring up their items. That also means that the worldwide network of iBeacons would number over 250 million.
3. Consumers and businesses want to use iBeacon, even if they don’t know what it is yet. According to a survey from the Yankee Group, 85 percent of consumers are interested in mobile coupons, and a quarter of them are already using SMS or MMS coupons. 62 percent of businesses are ready to meet those consumers, expressing interest in engaging customers on their mobile devices. The stage is set.
4. iBeacons watch you, but only if you let them. Like most new technology, iBeacons also bring up privacy concerns. From a data marketing standpoint, iBeacons are gold, providing valuable insights into how long consumers spend in a store, where they linger, and how they respond to messaging within a physical space. Consumers may be willing to trade coupons for marketers’ access to this information. The good thing is that the iBeacons only work if the app is running in the background and Bluetooth is enabled. Unless consumers leave dozens of apps running in the background all the time, which they shouldn’t do if they want to keep their battery life, they will likely have to open up an app each time they enter a store where they want to be messaged.
The announcement about iBeacon in Apple stores follows one by Major League Baseball saying that they would use iBeacons in their stadiums. More retailers are following, and soon we’ll be able to see if consumers are also responding to iBeacon.