Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Beacon blues [post 18/100]

I’ve been reading an increasing number of articles lately about how the Internet of Things is going to transform the retail industry. the specific thing that gets mentioned most often is in-store beacons that can broadcast offers and purchase suggestions to shoppers’ smartphones. And every single time I read one of these articles, I get angrier. Because every time, I think, “does nobody remember what happened last time?”

In case you, dear reader, don’t remember, let me refresh your memory: about 10-12 years ago, when bluetooth became more or less standard on mobile phones, there was this craze for bluetooth advertising. Basically this meant that as people walked down the road, minding their own business, with bluetooth turned on, restaurants and shops could broadcast messages to them. As you might imagine, receiving unsolicited messages from random businesses on their most personal devices was not a great experience, and so most people turned bluetooth off. Eventually the high street gave up.

Now we hear that BTLE beacons are going to revolutionise retailing. Which could be true, I admit, but only if we’re quite thoughtful about the way we implement them. Imagine how much more annoying bad recommendations will be when they’re following you around as you wander the high street. Lots of people dread being approached by salespeople when they’re shopping – do we really think they’ll respond better to an algorithm? Research has already shown that when done badly, this kind of thing fails big. Personally, I’d love to see beacons put to good use in shopping environments, but my idea of ‘good use’ is more service and less (no) marketing. Here’s an example:

Opt-in preferences-based guidance. I am extremely tall. Thus, normal-people clothing pretty much never fits me. I would be quite happy to have some help spotting places that make jeans that are long enough for me, and guidance to the actual bit of the store where those things are located (I totally understand the regular rearrangement of inventory for ‘rediscovery’ purposes, but it still drives me nuts). I imagine the same would apply for people who are looking for a particular style of dress, or colour of shoes, etc. etc. The key words here are ‘opt-in’ and ‘preference-based’ – i.e. give me a nice, easy way to tell you what I like before you start pushing things at me. And also, please for the love of god give me a way to dismiss/correct the things I don’t like.

Or, outside the retail sector, how about an open-source community initiative that let residents ‘mark up’ their neighbourhood with hardware? (more on this tomorrow)

There’s massive opportunity for this technology to improve and augment our environments, across a huge range of sectors: transport, culture, education and tourism. It’s just got to be done thoughtfully and respectfully, putting people first.