SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Apple touts its new iBeacon technology as a boon for retailers, but my first experience with the sensor system left me asking, “Is that it?”
The company activated its iBeacon tech, which uses Bluetooth low-energy, to track users’ iPhones as they roam an indoor space, at 254 U.S. Apple Stores this morning. I visited the Scottsdale Quarter store to see what Apple can do with the technology on its home turf. While you would think Apple would pull out all the stops for a truly spectacular iBeacon debut, I left unimpressed.
From my brief experience, one of the first hurdles for iBeacon will be getting iPhone users to enable their apps to use the new technology. A number of customers I spoke with at the store said they never use the Apple Store app and had no idea about the new notifications.
To get the notifications, customers first need to download the free Apple Store app, then make sure Bluetooth is turned on. According to Apple staff, the iBeacons were installed and activated in stores a few days ago but needed an app update to be ready, so check that you’ve updated to the latest version if you already have the Apple Store app on your iPhone.
As you approach an Apple Store, the app alerts you to the new in-store notifications. You can choose to pass if you don’t want Apple tracking you; otherwise, just tap to enable and you’re ready to be assaulted with notifications from iBeacons lurking throughout the store.
I entered the Scottsdale Quarter store and headed over to the accessories section. Sure enough, after browsing the wall of iPhone cases for a minute, my iPhone buzzed with my first in-store notification: “Shopping for accessories? Read product reviews and make your purchase right from your iPhone.”
Tapping the alert brought up an EasyPay tutorial screen that goes through the steps of scanning and purchasing items from your iPhone without the need for interaction with a store employee. We’ve heard Apple has been pushing retail staff to teach customers how to use EasyPay at every opportunity, but the addition of iBeacons means more of the in-store education duties can be pushed out as notifications. That move could help free up staffers to handle bigger sales and answer specific questions on products, if only Apple had more iBeacons in action.
Apple Store employees wouldn’t say how many iBeacons were installed throughout the store — the 5th Avenue store in New York City has 20 — but other than the notifications in the Accessories department, any other iBeacons in the store remained quiet when I visited.
I played with the MacBook Airs and iMacs for about five minutes each and got nothing. Same thing near the stations for the iPhone 5c, Retina iPad mini and iPod Touch. Visitors at other stores have reported that the iPhone area iBeacon prompts you to check your upgrade eligibility, and Apple has promised other cool notifications — like getting a message indicating a product you ordered for in-store pickup is ready as soon as you walk in a store.
The promise of iBeacons is great, but the real-life demo at the Apple Store doesn’t do much to “wow” customers. Instead, the Apple Store iBeacons start to feel like a seamless spam machine thanks to the repeat notifications to use EasyPay or check upgrade eligibility again and again each time you leave an area and then come back a few moments later.
Retailers will have to walk a delicate line between enhancing the shopping experience and spamming shoppers. So far, Apple’s implementation is a mixed bag of repeated alerts from overactive sections of the store, with other areas dead-silent on the notification front.
The trickling stream of repeat messages made it seem like the tech would be best used in larger spaces like museums, parks, sports stadiums or massive retail stores that offer a wide variety of products.
There’s plenty of room for improvement with iBeacons at the Apple Store. To start, it’d be nice if the iBeacons pushed interactive product detail cards to users, similar to the iPad display units, when you visit a demo station. We’d also love to see Apple expand the service to offer more advanced notifications, like product suggestions based on previous product purchases or devices tied to your iTunes ID.
I was hoping to discover a new type of shopping experience when I walked in the Apple Store this morning, but I walked out with a yawn. We’ve seen some truly neat iBeacon demos from Major League Baseball that still have me excited about the technology, but it might take a retailer other than Apple to get me truly stoked to go shopping with iBeacons.
Have you visited your local Apple Store today to check out iBeacons? We’d love to hear your take on it in the comments below.