Bluetooth beacons, which communicate with consumers' apps as they enter and leave stores, have been bouncing around the retail industry for a few years looking for the right combination of foot traffic, product and customer experience.

Airports, which combine all three of those factors, are a particularly good spot for the technology, says Sionic Mobile CEO Ronald Herman.

"In the travel sector the volume is important, and the biggest issue is speed," Herman said, noting that at one of the Popeye's locations in Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport there's a line "no matter how many cashiers are behind the counter."

The Atlanta-based Sionic is testing its new beacon deployment at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which usually trades back and forth with Chicago's O'Hare Airport as the world's busiest. Sionic is pairing Apple iBeacons with its Sionic ION Loyalty app and the Oracle Micros/ION Commerce Engine point of sale system in an attempt to speed check in, loyalty rewards, ordering and payments at a group of Mack II eateries in the Atlanta airport.

A runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Ga., where Sionic Mobile is testing a new beacon deployment
A runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Ga., where Sionic Mobile is testing a new beacon deployment IMAGE: Bloomberg News

Mack II operates Famous Famiglia Pizzeria, Baja Fresh Mexican, Phillips Seafood, Atlanta Bread, We Juice It and Popeye's Chicken locations at the airport. The three initial restaurants are the pizza chain, Atlanta Bread Company and Phillips Seafood, a mix of a 'grab and go,' buffet bar and sit down restaurant, giving Sionic a view of beacon performance at a variety of restaurant types.

The other Atlanta airport restaurant locations will come on board early in 2017 and Sionic plans to deploy the in 73 other airports where it does business. Sionic will also collaborate with other apps, such as GM OnStar and other partners that it will announce in the near term, Herman said, adding Sionic will stick with travel-related use cases because of the mix of volume and the need for fast transactions.

Sionic's goal is to go from a push notification when a consumer enters the store, a welcome message, offers and the "go to pay" button with Sionic's three digit transaction code in about a minute. "There's no card to hand over and the phone doesn't leave the owner's hands," Herman said. "It's all done through the cloud."

Retailers and payment companies have used beacons for years, taking advantage of the technology's ability to pair a user's' smartphone location to a store for uses ranging from location based marketing to bank-retailer partnerships, but have run into challenges because of issues such as store design.

There are also other potential uses for beacon technology at airports that make them an interesting deployment choice, according to Tim Sloane, vice president of payments innovation and director of the emerging technologies advisory service at Mercator. Airports have been the focus of other mobile payment initiatives, partly because of the airline's use of mobile apps to help travelers navigate to their plane and retrieve boarding passes.

"If the airline has a secure mobile app it could utilize the app and [Bluetooth Low Energy] to recognize the individual at the gate, to notify the individual to come to the counter if required and accept the boarding pass as the person enters the gate," Sloane said. "It would be particularly interesting if airports and airlines worked together to define an architecture and interoperability."

The timing is right for a major beacon deployment because of what Herman sees as a frustration with chip card payments—a large part of Sionic's pitch is its ability to use a mobile app to bypass a traditional point of sale. "The EMV dip takes far too long and it leave lines," he said.

The buzz surrounding Amazon's new "no cashier" store also helps, according to Herman. "We believe that in the near future, and I'm talking within the next six months, there will be pilot tests out there for stores similar to Amazon," he said.

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