Why Qualcomm’s betting big on beacons

lighthouse beacon

Retail brands and brick-and-mortar stores are abuzz about in-store beacons, the Bluetooth-powered devices that some believe will fundamentally change how people shop in stores.

It’s a worthy experiment for retailers whose stores have been turned into showrooms for Amazon purchases. But why are tech companies interested in creating devices that will possibly help sell cardigans? Beacons have yet to prove to have a significant impact on in-store sales, yet tech companies big (Apple, PayPal, Qualcomm) and small (inMarket and Shopkick) are all developing their own beacon products.

Kevin Hunter, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, spoke with Digiday about Qualcomm’s beacon product Gimbal, which is both device and software to communicate with shoppers within apps. The Miami Dolphins are using Gimbal to push messages and offers to fans at the game. Retailers can use Gimbal to track shoppers’ habits. Excerpts from our chat with Hunter:

What opportunity does Qualcomm see in beacons?
Beacons are really that digital-to-physical bridge within a micro-location. It gives that next level of relevancy. There’s the macro location side to this, as well. It allows brands or venues or retailers or developers to load in all their relevant geo-fences for their services. That can be their stores, zip code, cities. You can start to understand your audience before they arrive at your event or your store.

How can retailers take advantage of this?
Say I wanted to talk to everyone inside a stadium — maybe it’s last call — I can send a push message just to the people within that stadium.

Is this what you did with the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium?
Yes. We had geo-fences for when fans arrived that sent messages saying “welcome to the stadium, it’s great weather.” For people tailgating in the parking lot, we told them, “five minute warning before kickoff,” and that encouraged them to go inside. When inside, they started to engage with proximity beacons in different areas. One said it’s a hot day and sent giveaways for some free ice cream. If there was a fan in a long line, they were told about a shorter line two stands down.

What kind of information are you collecting?
It keeps track of frequent trending locations. If you were to look at mine, you’d see that I live in the La Jolla area and work in the Serrano Valley area. You can understand consumers’ income levels based on those areas. You can see that I go to the gym in the morning and that I tend to be a sports person.

Is that predicated on consumers constantly sharing their location information?
It’s important to lay out the privacy issues. We made sure we earned TrustE certification around having an opt-in, transparent privacy model. Our partners that implement Gimbal must implement the privacy policy, too.

But for consumers to be able to take advantage of beacons, they have to download an app for a specific location, opt-in to location sharing, open that app upon arrival and have their Bluetooth enabled. Seems complicated.
There have been some barriers in the past. When you initially saw location-sharing inside of apps, people were somewhat skeptical. But as they’ve found location provides incremental enhancements, they’ve become more comfortable with it. For Bluetooth, I think there’s some education needed there for sure. I think the high-level operating systems are going to start messaging consumers to turn on Bluetooth in order to improve location services as they’ve done with Wi-Fi. It’s passive an engagement that happens with the app in the background.

Can retailers draw geo-fences around competitors’ locations to see if customers have been there lately?
If it’s at a designated marketing area, at a particular mall or at their own store or a particular area, they could do that to enhance their experience. From our standpoint, we’re giving them the flexibility to use geo-fences for their services.

How is Gimbal going to stand out from all its competitors?
We see a lot of different companies that have point solutions; they may have one or two features at the most. We have more to offer than just individual point solutions — personal points of interest, context push, geo-fencing, micro-location, the analytics.


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