Beyond iBeacon: Imagining the social/location revolution coming to brick-and-mortar shopping

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Beyond iBeacon: Imagining the social/location revolution coming to brick-and-mortar shopping
A trusted friend of mine recently sent me an article to read from Wired, which was titled "4 Reasons Why Apple’s iBeacon Is About to Disrupt Interaction Design". It's not the sexiest title, certainly nothing as eye-catching and intriguing as "Imagining the social/location revolution coming to brick-and-mortar shopping", but we all have our own ways to convey information, I guess.

The Wired article was quite interesting in walking through the various ways that Apple's recently released iBeacon system could change the way we interact with the physical world, including retail stores. For those of you who are unfamiliar, iBeacon is essentially a protocol that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) to relay information between a physical place and a device, or between devices. It also can refer to the physical device itself that communicates with another via Bluetooth LE, or even refer to the network that these devices create. 

This all sounds a bit complicated, but imagine that you go to a store and there are various iBeacon points (from here on I'll call them "nodes") around the store a that will give you information on various deals or products, and some nodes dedicated to helping you deal with your shopping list, and paying for items you want. This network of nodes can be used to very accurately track your location within a store; they can interact with your shopping list to show you where to go or notify you of sales; and, when you're done and you've scanned the items you want, your purchase can be put through without worrying about lines or cash or anything. You just walk in, get what you want, and leave. Not bad, right?

The Wired piece considers the various potential benefits of iBeacon, including tying digital content to physical places, much like Google had hoped to do with NFC tags, except with iBeacon equipment, which is currently more expensive than NFC, but will get considerably cheaper as demand rises for nodes; using proximity to intelligently pass data between devices, for easier setup or transferring work environments; envisioning the future of retail, as explained with the example above; and, enabling more complex and interesting peer-to-peer interactions. As I was reading, I had two thoughts about the ideas presented - the first being a semantic point, and the second a far more interesting thought experiment about brick-and-mortar shopping. 

iBeacon metonymy

Metonymy is a phenomenon that I've talked about before wherein a brand name becomes the default stand-in for a product type or action that is closely related to it. For example, some people simply say Kleenex rather than tissue, Xerox instead of photocopy, to Google instead of to search the web, or iPhone or iPad instead of smartphone or tablet. Metonymy can give quite a bit of power to a certain brand, and it is already becoming an issue with iBeacon.

There are no real competitors to iBeacon right now, so the brand name is quickly taking on a higher role. I already explained how it is getting kind of confusing because iBeacon can refer to the developer protocol, the individual devices, or the network of devices, which is annoying, but will likely get sorted out over time. What is far more troubling is the fact that however that mess gets sorted out, iBeacon is quickly becoming the metonym for the entire system of using Bluetooth LE for location-aware interactions. Perhaps eventually the Apple branding of the term will disappear and we will simply refer to the systems as "Beacons", but it's hard to say right now. 

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Eventually, there will be competitors, and some could very well offer better functionality and usage than iBeacon, but once it is ingrained, metonymy is a tough thing to break. 

The imprecise art of future-telling

The other thought that I had while reading the article was that the author seemed to be focusing far too much on the product and less on the trend when attempting to imagine what the future might hold, and that is a sure-fire way to severely limit the possibilities that you imagine. Additionally, focusing on the product rather than the trend could also make you miss certain things like the difference between possible and realistic. 

For example, the article is a bit rosy-eyed. The idea that a store would map out your shopping list for you is one that will grab the attention of every shopper, but it is also an idea that would make retail store owners cringe, because it completely upends the way they have designed their stores for years and years. Retail stores and supermarkets are purposefully designed like mazes, and items are constantly being shifted around, not only to make room for new stock, but also to confuse shoppers. Retail stores want you to be a bit lost and wandering, because that will lead you to more impulse purchases as you find your way. 

This issue alone makes it highly unlikely to see many stores jumping at the chance to implemement iBeacon anytime too soon. Before retail chains would get on board, there would have to be a mountain of data proving that there is more revenue potential in making it easier for customers to find what they want and giving them deals, rather than making stores a bit of a maze with constantly moving parts, which forces even the most seasoned shoppers to wander more and potentially run into an item they didn't realize they wanted. 

Even on the consumer end the feature doesn't always sound that great, because the iBeacon data is controlled by the retail store, meaning it could be made just as confusing as stores have always been. It could steer customers on a bad path, or suggest an inferior product simply because the store needs to dump some inventory. Also, a big part of iBeacon is dynamic pricing. The rosy-eyed way to view dynamic pricing is that stores will automatically lower prices to match what you would find at the competition or online. But, it is also very possible that a store could analyze your shopping cart, determine that you are more wealthy based on the choices you've made, or your shopping history, and quote you a higher price knowing that you're more likely to pay it. Anyone who holds the idea that "more expensive = better" could end up exploited. 

There are certainly times when you want to go to a store and get in and get out as fast as possible with few distractions. But, recommendation models and knowing what a customer wants are both currently imprecise tools at best, although they are getting better and better all the time; and, while they can make shopping more straightforward, they can remove some of the serendipity you get in a physical store when you stumble across an item that you have wanted for a long time, but had forgotten. There's no guarantee that item would ever make it onto your list or recommendations, and if you have a more targeted path through a store, you might miss it. Of course, just as new services like Google Now and Shopkick aim to add more serendipity to your experience, iBeacon has that potential as well.

Another future for brick-and-mortar shopping

So, here's my thought experiment: let's try to consider the trends of mobile and not just the specific product of iBeacon, because you don't want the technology to limit the idea process. Forget iBeacon for a moment and instead consider that the main trend in mobile isn't just location-aware functionality, but combining location with social to give you a better experience. With that in mind, I wanted to push beyond the ideas given for the future of retail stores. I would suggest a shopping system that works similarly to Waze, but for physical stores, because when you focus on the trends, you remember that social and crowd-sourcing are the real way to easily add value to a product without requiring as much work from parties that may not be interested in helping. 

As I mentioned before, retail stores would likely need to be swayed before installing a proper iBeacon system into physical locations, but one of the more interesting aspects of the technology is that an ad-hoc network can be created with just the smartphones in the area and nothing more. So, you create a crowd-sourced platform that can ultimately offer all of the functionality imagined in the Wired article, plus quite a bit more, all without the need for retail stores to do anything more than make sure there are data signals in stores (some of those Targets are built like fallout shelters), and maybe add payment nodes, so we can all still avoid lines. 

For example, you can create a Waze-like app which will log each time someone scans an item for a price comparison or to adds it to their shopping carts on their phones. The location in the store is recorded for each interaction, and a map of the store is built from that data. You don't need the store's input, because the map would include the layout of the store and the various sections; and, the real-time data would take care of any inventory reorganization that is done. You would also get real-time traffic data, so you know how busy a store is at a given time, which can then be aggregated into historical data which shows when to avoid a store because it is so busy.

Customers could also submit a wide range of other information, including good deals, alerts for other shoppers about when a certain item is running low on stock, etc. You would obviously also want to add in user comments on products and professional reviews as well (something that has lost far too much relevancy recently), so customers could find viable alternatives to what they originally intended to buy, and maybe even getting a better deal in the process. You could even have options to tag the most helpful employees in a store, or mark employees for various areas of expertise. So, you would know that if you went to the Best Buy around the corner, you want to talk to Devin if you're looking for a TV, but Taylor is a better option if you want a tablet. 

All of this data would be open to customers and retailers alike. It would allow for smarter staffing decisions, and maybe even better inventory control through having a more informed customer base. Just imagine, it would only be a matter of time before Best Buy would be forced to stop carrying Monster cables and their 1000% markup, because all customers would see that you can buy an HDMI cable online that's just as good for about $5-6. 

The options would still exist to include the location-aware parts of iBeacon, but there is so much more potential for physical stores with a social system than with iBeacon alone. If iBeacon is present in a store, and we have this crowd-sourcing platform running at the same time, you could get certain benefits like a dynamic Groupon. If a number of people came in all looking for the same item, that item could be offered to others until a certain threshold is met, at which point everyone gets it for a bit cheaper. Of course, we need to walk before we can run, so it seems likely that iBeacon would be the first step and the social expansion would come later.


There are undoubtedly a number of changes coming to the physical shopping experience in the future. We've already seen the rise of location-aware deals and offers with services like Google Offers and Groupon, which canvas a larger area for deals, as well as services like Shopkick, which require you to go into the store to get the deals. Systems like iBeacon will certainly help to remove some friction from various physical interactions, but there are still plenty of opportunities beyond this current technology that can both benefit consumers and perpetuate the same annoyances that retail stores have been pushing on us for years. We don't even have to try imagining technology that doesn't exist, just adapt technologies and behaviors that we already have to a new context and see what arises. 

Whatever the systems that do arise, it seems likely that there would need to be a social layer added if only as a measure of protection for consumers. iBeacon has a lot of benefits on both sides, but without transparent data, the system could easily be gamed by a greedy retail store. It is all well and good to consider the best-case scenarios for a new platform, but we always need to be prepared for the worst-case as well.

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