Samsung's less-pushy beacons stress sales over alerts

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NEW YORK — Just a few years ago, tech companies imagined a world where Bluetooth beacons would push alerts to consumers' smartphones as they walked by a store or navigated its aisles. The tech isn’t gone, but it’s become more subtle in how it's being used.

Rather than inundate shoppers with push alerts — something that may not have gone over well in today’s privacy-conscious environment — Samsung’s retail beacon deployment focuses on pushing information to store associates, providing a human touch with a high-tech twist.

The bigger goal is to make sure a customer interaction turns into a sale, rather than an expensive pitch for a product that the shopper winds up buying online instead. In Samsung’s scenario, associates use a tablet to look up any customer issue (such as a leaky toilet) to find the right product for their need, even if the associate has no experience with plumbing parts.

The system, which Samsung has already deployed with an unnamed customer, can then use beacons to take the associate — with customer in tow — to the product’s location.

The beacons “help locate where you physically are. It’s almost like using Google Maps in a store,” said John M. Gibson, Samsung’s head of business development for manufacturing, at NRF’s Big Show this week in New York.

As elaborate as this process is, very little of it matters if the customer can’t pay right away. If the store associate points to the register and the customer sees eight people in line already, the customer is likely to drop the items on the nearest shelf and buy online instead.

Samsung’s tech is designed to accept card or mobile payments, “eliminating the last window of opportunity to abort the sale,” he said.

Many companies have experimented with ways to use Bluetooth beacons in a retail environment. Target, for example, deployed beacons in 2015 to offer time-sensitive deals to shoppers in stores. It also hoped to dynamically re-sort a customer's shopping list while navigating the store, based on the shopper's proximity to specific items. Companies also worked to tie beacon technology more closely to payments, usually via mobile wallets.

But the technology took a hit late last year when Google shut down support for Android's Nearby Notifications, which was based on Bluetooth beacons.

"We noticed a significant increase in locally irrelevant and spammy notifications that were leading to a poor user experience," Google said in an October blog post. "While filtering and tuning can help, in the end, we have a very high bar for the quality of content that we deliver to users, especially content that is delivered through notifications."

Android's Nearby Notifications shut down on December 6.

In a way, the cashierless Amazon Go store is a spiritual successor to these projects, in that it uses sensors to track customers' movements throughout the store and link them to a payment account.

Samsung is working to adapt more of its consumer technology to serve the retail workforce. In another example, Samsung’s smartwatches — originally marketed as a consumer accessory — are being given to workers to help them manage tasks while keeping their hands free. This could be used by baristas to manage coffee orders, or by janitorial staff to manage cleaning tasks.

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Retailers Internet of things Mobile wallets Mobile point-of-sale Samsung