iBeacon: the days of peaceful shopping are over

Stores with “automatic hassling” Are we ready for this? Do we even want this?


Yesterday, Apple began using iBeacon in its 254 Apple Stores across the Unite States, marking the start of the popularization of a technology that we will probably see rolled out in many more retail outlets in the coming year.

iBeacon is a new type of low-consumption, low-cost transmitter based on Bluetooth 4.0 that can detect the presence of devices in a limited radius and send messages to them. These areas, called geofencing, can be located within a few centimeters: you walk up to a counter and you receive a message inviting you to try one of the products on display.

Stroll by the iPhones display desk with an old model and you will receive a message inviting you to enquire as to whether you are eligible for Apple’s exchange program. Approach a queue to pay and a message will remind you that you save time by paying the Apple Store app.

We now face a future of shelves, walls, and corners that talk to clients via their smartphone. The technology has been under trial at department store chain Macy’s over the month of November, and is due to be extended to all types of shops, museums, stadiums, shopping malls, etc.

Users have to give their consent and install an app for iBeacon messages to be received, but this doesn’t seem like it’s going to put anybody off: once you’ve used it a few times you’re unlikely to bother rejecting authorization. This is an important development in the shopping experience: instead of moving around a shop trying to avoid the sales staff, instead, we are guided by our smartphones and the messages that pop up in each area or department.

So will iBeacon become the norm, adopted around the world, or will it simply be yet another trial to be abandoned after a few months? That question is hard to answer. To begin with, the expected rollout is planned to reach 250,000 units during 2014. On the one hand there is no denying that an unsolicited message on your smartphone screen, or a beep or vibration interrupting what you are doing is pretty close to the pop up on our computer screen, and that has now pretty much died the death due to its excessive intrusiveness.

On the other hand, this is an intrusion in “non-human” mode, something that seems to minimize the feeling of being bothered (as opposed to being interrupted by a salesperson), particularly among younger generations. From my middle-aged point of view, the idea of iBeacon taking root would be enough to make shopping a complete nightmare. That said, I have come to learn that my views are, on many occasions, are not necessarily the most representative.

Based on the time frames that Apple tend to operate by, we can probably expect to see iBeacon in the company’s stores in other countries within six months. At the same time, we will surely see other stores picking up on the trend: the potential data to be gathered on customers’ habits, the appeal of certain products and areas, and its efficiency, along with the additional possibilities for interaction will be too hard to resist.

Soon, we will have come to accept that our smartphone interrupts us as we shop, making noises or vibrating as we approach this or that product. There will be shops that abuse the system and that will become a nightmare to go into, while others will make an effort to limit the number of messages they send, all of which, combined with the attractiveness of the messages and promotions, will determine to a large extent the public’s adoption.

Stores with “automatic hassling” Are we ready for this? Do we even want this?