Showrooming the iBeacon Way

Retailers struggle with showrooming: the use of mobile devices by consumers to quickly compare the price of a product in a store with its price online.

iBeacon technology seems to hold the promise of an end this trend. But while that might be a short-term benefit, iBeacon also represents a more profound challenge to retailers: the end of any distinctions between on and offline.

iBeacon and the End of Showrooming

The retailer’s nightmare is to be, well, a showroom for e-commerce sites: they end up carrying the costs of product display while their e-commerce cousins get all the sales.

With apps that now let you scan a barcode and instantly get its price on Amazon or other online sources, showrooming is where the battle lines have been drawn between where the physical and digital converge.

iBeacon technology seems to hold the promise of an end (or at least a level of attrition) to showrooming. Search Engine Watch headlined a recent article like this: “iBeacon: Goodbye Showrooming, Hello In-Store Purchase”.

With iBeacon, brands will finally be able to connect the dots between a consumer performing a search within an app and then actually entering a store. Assuming the user has agreed to accept iBeacon transmissions through a brand’s native app, it will actually be possible to follow their post-click, real-world journey, direct them to a product and give them an incentive to buy when they get there. Goodbye, showrooming. Hello, in-store purchase.

The premise is valid. And in particular, the advantage of iBeacon is that it can remove a friction point for consumers: instead of needing to click through to Amazon to do a price comparison, product information can be ‘pushed’ to your phone, incentives delivered, and loyalty or reward points offered based on proximity to the actual product.

The promise of ending showrooming, in other words, is that because the retailer controls the shelf (and thus the positioning of beacons), they’re in a better position to easily deliver value to the customer because they can remove the clicks and search bar entries, the bar code scanning and the web browsing from the user equation.

Not So Fast: Why iBeacon Creates A Bigger Challenge Than Showrooming

Positioning iBeacon as an ‘end to showrooming’, however, strikes us as having two problems:

  • If you’re playing defense, you’re not playing offense. Hoping that iBeacon alone can push the needle against showrooming papers over the larger challenge: what kind of in-store experience do you want your customers to have?
  • On its own, showrooming and responding to it generally targets the lowest end of the product/retailer value equation: price or features.

iBeacon represents the latest visible shift to a world in which there is no offline. And while the power of digital might seem to be in its data, it’s also in how it eases friction points, creates experiences, and links users into a rich mesh of social commentary, content and advertising.

Search Engine Watch sees a day when what we do online follows us into the store:

One of the biggest frustrations the industry has faced as mobile usage escalates is connecting the dots between smartphone search and in-store purchases. Now the option to redeem offers and points and actually pay for purchases is likely to be far smoother, easier and available to one and all. And as device identifiers like Apple’s IDFA and Google’s Advertising ID become more robust and inevitably extended to the browser, it will become easier and easier to connect search behavior to tangible, real-world transactions.

In this view, the physical world is an extension of our digital lives.

But we don’t see it that way: our digital lives are going to be informed by physical spaces, and a shelf will have as much data and content embedded in it as an e-commerce website. While omnichannel may be the new buzz word that replaces integrated marketing, it only hints at the larger question that retailers are starting to face: how do we redesign the physical world itself?

In recognition that everything is becoming a digital interface:

  • How do we curate experiences through physical stores?
  • What value does your customer expect that doesn’t just swap lower price points and feature lists on Amazon for something more compelling and engaging?
  • If a physical store is a new channel, what kind of media will it ‘play’?
  • What other components should be added to iBeacon to enrich how a consumer walks through a store?
  • How do you resolve the challenges of push versus pull, privacy versus value, and social versus solo experiences?

In the end, iBeacon doesn’t end showrooming. It embraces it.

When the physical world can have the same data ’embedded’ in it as Amazon, it leaves the retailer with the realization that if all things can soon become equal, what exactly IS it about a physical space that is attractive to the consumer? What’s the value of the tactile and the curated, of memory or serendipity, of brand values and storytelling? And where exactly will beacons fit in?

In what way, in other words, is your retail experience more like a visit to Rubens House in Antwerp?

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One thought on “Showrooming the iBeacon Way

  1. Great writeup…

    It’s a little painful knowing that we’re in for 12-24 months of beacons turning our phones into billboards, but I do think you’re right that we will emerge with in-store retail offering real Experiences (with a capital E) that aren’t possible online.

    imho, use cases of triggering offers on proximity will fall flat for lots of reasons: hardware limitations, lack of relevance, lack of control over incoming messages, aggressive/noisy marketing efforts, etc. However, once you start combining advisory interactions that have historically been accomplished with human sales people with a lot more personalization, education, entertainment… then I think it gets much more interesting.


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