Wireless location services benefit consumers and retailers alike

By Clay Hine, Nordic Semiconductor

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Beacon technology is rapidly evolving. Today’s devices support use cases that extend from proactive retail engagement to indoor asset tracking and navigation in shopping malls, airports, hospitals and more.

For consumers, the technology makes it possible to access directory services providing information on nearby points of interest such as restaurants, take advantage of indoor navigation or wayfinding services within large buildings and receive personalized marketing directly to their smartphones.

And retailers can use the technology to collect customer footfall data and gather important insights into their behavior to help improve marketing strategies and campaigns; use customer location data to analyze trends and understand how a customer demographic is changing in a particular area; track the location of assets in real-time and manage inventory, and push notifications about ongoing deals and special offers as customers enter or leave a geofenced virtual zone.

Beacon barriers

But it wasn’t always so. Early beacons were basic devices that detected a nearby consumer’s smartphone and, provided the consumer had downloaded a companion app, triggered a specific app that offer contextual information based on the shopper’s location. For example, if the customer was hovering near a particular product range in a supermarket aisle, such as breakfast cereals, the app could highlight a preconfigured special offer such as a ‘two-for-one’ on the products in question.

Two challenges stymied adoption. First, the smartphone location was determined by Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI) which is a proxy for the distance between receiver and transmitter. However, other factors—such as attenuation due to obstacles—also affect the signal strength, limiting the precision of the distance calculation. Second, because Bluetooth LE tech’s advertising channels have limited data-carrying capability, the signal the smartphone received just informed it that the beacon was not soliciting pairing and provided the beacon’s unique ID. It was the smartphone app that did the heavy lifting of associating the given ID with the appropriate contextual information. If the app wasn’t open, no contextual information was provided, rendering the beacon useless.

The benefit of advertising extensions

The introduction of Bluetooth 5 changed things. The updated specification not only increased Bluetooth LE tech’s range and throughput but also included an advertising extensions feature which increased the advertising channels’ information capacity more than eightfold. That allowed a retailer to use advertising extensions to directly send bespoke information about a special deal or new product (“hey, you looked at coffee machines; right now, you can get 10 percent off the latest model”) without the need for an app.

Later Bluetooth 5.1 added Direction Finding to the specification. The technology provides the basis for precision positional estimates in two or three dimensions—superior to that facilitated by RSSI—by adding support for Angle-of-Arrival (AoA) and Angle of Departure (AoD) location methods.

These enhancements have changed beacons from a useful but constrained technology into one that offers good support for a range of advanced location services for the benefit of consumers and providers alike. As a result, increasingly sophisticated beacon-enabled business models for consumer engagement are emerging on the scene. For example, the Minew Electronic Shelf Label (ESL) smart shelf-labeling system—developed by China-based technology company Shenzhen Minew Technologies—replaces traditional, manually updated price tags with smart tags for improved price visibility. The smart labels also report back to a Nordic Semiconductor-powered gateway and a Cloud platform, allowing retailers to remotely monitor and manage their stock and the precise position of products on store shelves. The ESL system also uses Nordic’s Bluetooth SoCs to double up as a network of conventional beacons for marketing to consumers at the ‘point-of-label’.

Melinda Huang, Vice Sales Director with Shenzhen Minew Technologies explains that location-based beacons are increasingly being adopted in the retail sector to help cement a mutually beneficial relationship between retailers and consumers. She says that beacons broadcast continuous signals to Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi-enabled devices in range, delivering highly-targeted messages to users within a precise area.

Helping the return to normal

Contemporary beacon technology is supporting a cautious return to normality as retail, hospitality and transport hubs open-up post-pandemic. As people return to public places protecting them has taken on a greater priority. It is now essential for shops and restaurants, for example, to ensure they’re adhering to stringent occupancy standards. Monitoring foot traffic through the store is vital, as is knowing how many people have used the restrooms. At a larger facility like a shopping mall or airport, fixed locators make it feasible to implement dynamic digital versions of a whiteboard for cleaning staff, or to automatically indicate to people in transit that a particular area has been recently cleaned. 

These examples are markers for a wider trend that indicates Bluetooth LE beacons will be the foundation for further advancements supported by location services, indoor navigation and direction-finding technologies. This will boost the sector’s health; the segment is expected to exhibit good medium-term expansion, with a 32 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in annual device shipments from 2021 to 2025, according to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group’s (SIG) 2021 Bluetooth Market Update, based primarily on analysis by consultant ABI Research. The report suggests retail is the vertical taking the most significant advantage of Bluetooth Location Services, with 66 percent of all implementations currently supporting use cases in that sector.

In the indoor location services sector, future advances use a combination of short-range wireless beacons and Ultra-Wideband (UWB)—an RF technology that calculates the position by measuring the time-of-flight between transmitter and receiver, instead of using signal strength as a proxy for distance—for very precise location accuracy. Wi-Fi and cellular will also enter the mix, allowing engineers to trade-off cost, precision, battery life and interoperability.

Developers making the most of multiple wireless technologies will have the inside track in the race to success. And the result of their endeavors will be products that better engage consumers and boost retailers’ bottom lines.

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