Is This the Year of the Beacon?

It’s a new year. 2016. All the shopping, all the traveling, all the holiday meals, all the relatives, all the returns, and of course, all the Star Wars. Done. We made it. So let’s look at the year ahead of us. What’s in store for retail technology in 2016? That’s a pretty broad question and one with a million answers and points of view. In fact, check out TPN’s own Manny Alamagro speak on the topic of Technology & Retail at CES on Jan 6. Instead, let’s look at one area of potential for 2016: the mobile beacon.

Since beacons became the buzz in 2013, there has been a perpetual question to follow: will this be the year that the beacon really hits the mark, connecting retailers and brands more closely with their customers? Will this be the year of the beacon? Forbes asked this question of 2015, noting the strides that brands embracing location-based, proximity marketing could expect to see:

The companies who can get closest to the shopper – making her experience as efficient as possible – will boost their brand’s value and, more importantly, drive sales in the digital economy. Conversely, customers who have to do the least amount of work to find what they want for the right price will show their appreciation in dollars.

So how is this expected to come to fruition in 2016? Well, one indicator is that more retailers are signing contracts with beacon providers, which implies that more retailers are becoming equipped with the technology and ramping up to ping their shoppers. According to Ad Age, “global brands including Carrefour, Ikea, Macy’s, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Target signed contracts with beacon providers in the last quarter, according to ABI Research, and Facebook this summer began distributing the trackers for free to small businesses.” Simon Property Group and Macerich have also placed beacons in their shopping centers. As with any emerging technology, as it becomes more prolific, it will also begin to feel more common, more normal to those that engage with it, which is an important tipping point. So it seems that one hurdle, that of beacon availability and placement, is lessening as more large retailers and brands are pushing for adoption, hoping for those key nuggets of data to understand their shoppers better.

Another indicator is going to be reliant on shoppers, who must opt in and download apps to their smartphones in order to receive any notifications from beacons. Just a few years ago, the biggest hurdle seemed to be the relatively low number of shoppers that adopted smartphones; nowadays, that hurdle has vanished, only to be replaced with perhaps a larger one: permission to push alerts to shoppers’ phones. There’s a slippery slope of trust between brands/retailers and their shoppers. I think email is a prime example of this relationship. A shopper opts in to receive a retailer’s emails for a one time discount. From there, any number of scenarios takes place: the shopper continues to receive and look at the emails, sends them to spam or unsubscribes from emails completely. That line of communication can falter at any time, even when a shopper is a diehard fan of a brand/retailer. One email too many in too short of a timeframe, feels pushy. Over the holidays, I had one day where I received 5 emails from the same retailer – it was too much.

The shopper has to feel like the benefits outweigh any twinge of annoyance be it with emails, or ultimately push notifications. If the notifications are personal (but not creepy), timely and helpful, then shoppers will be drawn in, engage and feel rewarded if they score a deal. Such is the approach with ShopAdvisor, which presents its app as a shopper’s personal concierge. As discussed in the New York Times:

With the aim of driving shoppers into stores, ShopAdvisor incorporates data analytics that filter a shopper’s preferences and provide a way for retailers to send personalized alerts to consumers who have downloaded a brand’s app, offering discounts, highlighting sales and providing content such as product reviews that might instantly sway a buying decision.

“We’ve had at least three years of heavy-duty location-based marketing under retailers’ belts,” said JiYoung Kim, senior vice president for Ansible, the mobile division of the Interpublic Group, the global marketing company. “Everybody has the same tool, and targeting alone can only take you so far.”

What makes the ShopAdvisor approach enticing, Ms. Kim said, is that it not only precisely locates a shopper in a store but provides personalized creative content from that retailer to that shopper on the spot. Offer that shopper a 20 percent discount on some new black pumps she has been eyeing, along with a positive review from a popular fashion magazine, and a purchase is far more likely.

Through this route, ShopAdvisor doesn’t feel overly pushy and by engaging shoppers so they feel like they are “in the know,” the app has jumped that hurdle of permission and created portal of connection between beacons and shoppers, thereby connecting shoppers and brands. ShopAdvisor is just one of many shopping apps, but it seems to have made good on connecting beacons with shoppers in a promising fashion.

I also anticipate that as retailer-specific apps become more sophisticated and the use of them becomes a more integrated step in the shopper journey, additional progress with beacon notifications will happen. I think the Target Cartwheel app, is doing just that: getting shoppers used to seeing the signs in store and then getting the deal by checking the app. It’s a bit of a training wheels approach to making Cartwheel a natural part of the Target shopping experience. And with Target making beacons available in store, I would be willing to bet that beacon notifications will eventually substitute those Cartwheel signs in store and in order to keep shopping with the benefits of Cartwheel, shoppers must allow the alerts. While this approach too relies on shoppers feeling like they are getting special deals, it has the added benefit of building on their newly-ingrained shopping process tied directly to the retailer and in fact, could build on to the loyalty.

So, with all that said, is this the year of the beacon? Since my magic eight ball says try again later, I think we will have to wait and see. It’s certainly a year for beacons to gain momentum, but the extent of it remains to be seen.

Image: Getty

Amazon and the Handmade Frontier

Today, Amazon launched a new marketplace called Handmade at Amazon, which takes competitor Etsy head on. This new arts-and-crafts bazaar hosts over 80,000 items from about 5,000 sellers in 60 countries, moves Amazon into new territory and positions it to take lead in the every growing, home-grown artisan market.

What’s in it for shoppers?

Amazon shoppers will already feel at home browsing around the 6 handmade categories—home, jewelry, artwork, stationery and party supplies, kitchen and dining, and baby—through a familiar interface and cart process. Each product’s detail page prominently displays the Handmade logo and features a picture of the artisan behind the work, with links for specific inquiries. So, they get to know the person a little more, and make a connection. While being able to request custom products, shoppers can also easily automate the made-to-order purchase process without directly contacting the seller through Amazon’s options.

Shoppers are also assured that these products are in fact, handmade (not just made to look handmade). Amazon has been vetting artisans since May for their marketplace, and has strict guidelines for what constitutes handmade:

All products available in your Handmade at Amazon store must be made entirely by hand, hand-altered, or hand assembled (not from a kit). Products must be handmade by you (the artisan), by one of your employees (if your company has 20 or fewer employees), or a member of your collective with less than 100 people. Mass-produced products or products handmade by a different artisan are not eligible to sell in Handmade.

While this may seem like a trivial distinction to make, it’s one that Etsy has skirted since changing it’s vendor rules, allowing for outside manufacturing. Etsy’s controversial decision has lead to an expansion of what vendors offer, but there has also been a rise in counterfeit items and a perception of moving away from their handmade roots.

Prime shoppers may also find free expedited shipping through Handmade at Amazon for select products.

What’s in it for vendors?

Well, Amazon has 285 million active account shopper base, so that’s a ton more eyeballs on your wares than Etsy’s 22 million active accounts. Amazon is also offering sellers logistical benefits as well, such as lot shipping through their fulfillment centers across the country, enabling Amazon to ship the goods as part of the Prime program. On the site, sellers can develop a profile page to introduce themselves and their passion for their product, and also promote their goods through Amazon’s Sponsored Products advertising program.

Greater traffic and exposure, along with shipping, are certainly beneficial, but at what cost. According the NY Times:

Most sellers are likely to give Amazon a bigger cut of their sales for that reach, however. Etsy charges a 20-cent fee for each item a seller lists on its site and takes a 3.5 percent cut of the sales. For now, Amazon will charge no listing fee but take 12 percent of sales, which it says covers all costs, including payment processing, marketing and fraud protection.

Given that most of the vendors behind handcrafted goods are small, independent outfits, some still hobby enterprises, the addition of Amazon as another avenue for selling may add a layer of complication for folks already selling on Etsy or EBay. However, with increased traffic could come more consistent sales and more stability, and they may be better off opting out of their former markets.

What’s in it for Amazon?

Moving into the handmade market place isn’t a huge stretch. Amazon already has a general marketplace open to vendors. But it’s clear, Amazon is spreading its capabilities and diversifying offerings. While it has done this for years through products, some with more success than others, the company is geared up to take on services like grocery delivery and home repairs. So why not get a stake in the ever-trending artisan market, in this day and age of pinspiration? Why not put a different face on what IS Amazon? Through the handmade marketplace, Amazon becomes a supporter of the little guy, the independent, not just a big company pushing mainstream products like it’s big box competitors. It’s another feather in the hat for Amazon, so let’s see how this goes.

2013: The Year of Deal-Seeking

Google released its top-searched items of 2013, and Kohl’s, JCPenny and Nordstrom graced the top spots on the apparel brands and retailers list.  Following the top three included Forever 21, Old Navy and Macy’s.

What do these retailers have in common?  All were searched along with terms that indicated shoppers were looking for a deal or price reduction.  For example, Nordstrom shoppers were most likely looking for Nordstrom Rack in their searches.

But this trend of looking for good deals is not exclusive to online retailers.  Shoppers are also more likely to negotiate prices in-store, thanks to multiple resources.

Brick and mortar shoppers now have an arsenal of never-ending resources in the form of smartphones.  Price-checking in-store, or showrooming, has quickly become the norm, and retailers have had no choice but to find creative ways to fight back and ensure in-store sales remain strong.

Best Buy is one of those retailers and is offering a price-match guarantee this year.  What does this mean?  Customers can bargain.  Prices are no longer set in stone.  If a shopper finds a cheaper price online, Best Buy will work with them to keep that sale in-store.

The future of retail is changing rapidly and with each new technological advancement, shoppers get smarter about what they are willing to pay for products and services.  Brands and retailers will also have to continue to get smarter, adopting new technologies and policies that will ensure both in-store and online channels thrive.

Social Media, Branding Superhero

Inc. Magazine recently featured a post about whether social media is more advertising or PR. The author believes that social media can be either, depending on a marketer’s goals or objectives. My Millennial opinion: Social media is its own entity.

PR is message and communication management, a key aspect of social media. Advertising is focused on business strategy and achieving measurable results based on set objectives. Any social media promotional campaign that depends on conversion as a success factor harnesses the skills of advertising.

I agree with the author that social media can be what a client needs it to be and can lean toward PR or advertising, depending on the objective. But, as a whole, social media is the future…happening now.

The fact that social media can tackle the demands of PR and advertising in one fell swoop gives it a power that neither PR nor advertising can have on their own. It’s a medium that gives anyone the power to become a brand — and that’s exactly how my generation is using it.

We are setting the future of business by branding ourselves without the assistance of PR or advertising, but instead using social media. And thanks to this special medium, when consumers set trends on Facebook, Twitter or the like, brands tend to follow in their footsteps. If you’re wondering who is really in control…look no further. Consumers and Shoppers. They hold the power in today’s dynamic retail ecosystem.

And mark my words, the more prominent social media becomes, the more brands will begin to test its limits in ways no one could ever imagine with PR or advertising alone.

Feature photo credit: ViralBlog