Physical Web Beacons and Retail


Why The Physical Web will make store apps redundant

It almost feels like heresy for a retail innovation agency to downplay the importance of apps. However, we’ve learnt from bitter experience that, while the notion of getting your branded retail apps into the hands of customers sounds excellent on paper, actually driving downloads and usage is massively challenging.

That hasn’t stopped apps being heralded as the saviours of offline retail, and it’s hard to say no to apps when figures suggest that time spent by users on apps is skyrocketing and dwarfing mobile web.

Mobile minutes

However, for multi-channel retailers, the app growth stats are misleading. ‘Must-have’ apps for users aren’t store apps. The real app action is almost all centred on comms and utilities, the kind of go-to apps like Facebook and Youtube that consumers use day in and day out.

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 18.01.43

In the US, the apparent home of the store app, the latest Comscore stats show that the only retail app to scrape into the top ten is from eCommerce giant Amazon. And the only multi-channel retailer app to feature at all is Walmart’s app, coming in at a lowly 23.

Recent stats from App Annie also back up the trend – ‘online first’ retail apps (think ASOS) are showing steep growth, whereas apps from multi-channel ‘legacy’ retailers are growing slowly, and in some territories actually declining.


The lack of interest in store apps is also something that our multi-channel retail clients have picked up on. Many are looking at low download rates and realising that their store apps are unlikely to ever go beyond a small group loyal shoppers and become truly mass-market.

Think about it from your own app usage patterns – are you ever really going to download and keep an app on your phone to interact with every single store you visit? Maybe for Starbucks or another store you go into all the time, but the benefits of occasional store app usage vastly outweigh the friction involved in downloading, registering, using and updating them.


That’s a shame for those involved in bridging the gap between physical and digital in-store, because apps offer so much in terms of functionality (Beacon integration, payments, barcode scanning etc), and shoppers are using their devices in-store to make purchase decisions, just not using the retailers’ apps to do so.

inMarket In-Store Mobile Usage 2016 Infographic
inMarket: How Shoppers Use Mobile In-Store (PRNewsFoto/inMarket)

Despite the gulf between retailers intentions and consumer appetite, we still see many solutions and strategies based on shoppers downloading and using store specific apps. We think the facts speak for themselves, and the potential penetration amongst real shoppers is just too low to focus heavily on apps for delivering in-store interaction and cross channel integration.

But don’t be too disconsolate, we think a big part of the answer to in-store mobile interaction might be just around the corner, and it comes in the form of a new type of Beacon.

What are Physical Web Beacons?

Physical Web Beacons are a relatively new piece of technology developed by Google. They are very similar to iBeacons, but instead of broadcasting an unique ID, they broadcast a URL. That URL can send users to a web based service (web page, web app, digital content etc).

What is Eddystone?

Physical Web Beacons need to support and be set up to use Google’s Eddystone protocol to broadcast URLs (sometimes these Physical Web Beacons are also referred to as Eddystone Beacons).

Physical Web Beacon and Retail

What is a nearby notification?

URLs from Physical Web Beacons can be recognised by Google Chrome (or Nearby Notifications, which is an OS level Google service). These services when activated will constantly scan for and display URLs from nearby Beacons. Any available URLs are shown on the user’s phone in form of low priority ‘nearby notifications’. The closer the beacon, the higher up the list the notifications will come.


What are the key benefits?

The key advantage of Physical Web Beacons is that you don’t need an app to interact with them. If you are familiar with other techniques to bridge the physical/digital divide, they are;

  • A bit like QR codes and NFC, in that they can can quickly direct the user to a URL (but without the need to print a code or attach an NFC sticker, or to have a QR code app or NFC enabled on your phone)
  • A bit like WiFi, in that they are broadcast wirelessly and are location specific (but without the need for a WiFi Access Point or to join a network)
  • A bit like standard Beacons, in that they enable digital interaction and deliver location specific digital content in the real world (but without the need for a specific beacon enabled app)

What are the downsides?

The Physical Web is still very much an early stage technology, so beyond the need to install beacons, there exist a number of consumer barriers to adoption and usage.

  • Users need to have bluetooth on (Google reckons that some 50% of users now have it switched on as standard) and Bluetooth dependent devices (e.g. Apple’s new wireless earphones and wearables) are helping drive this up
  • Users need to have enabled Nearby Notifications on Android, or dig deep into Chrome notification settings on iOS (Apple aren’t making it easy to use for the time being)


With that in mind, the technology is going to take some time to get to ‘mass market’ status, but because Google is backing it, and has the power (and we believe the intention) to bake it deeper into the Android OS experience, we think this one has the potential to go beyond curious early adopters and become a real tool for stores going forward.


Five things a retailer could do with Physical Web Beacons in-store

1 – Go to a store-specific version of the eCommerce platform 

This can include tagging to allow for attribution of any sales back to the local store, as well as deep linking into departments (i.e. you could have a Physical Web Beacon in Menswear that pointed to Menswear online).

2 – Scan product codes and deep-link to online product content

We’ve developed technology that allows barcode and text scanning via mobile web, so in-store shoppers could access this functionality via Physical Web Beacons. Even mobile scan-and-pay is possible via this type of service, and yes, no app required.

3 – Collect loyalty rewards and get personalised offers 

We’ve developed this for WiFi portals already, but there’s no reason that, via cookies we couldn’t deliver low friction rewards and targeted promotions via Physical Web Beacons.

4 – Shop the window or in-store VM displays

A Physical Web Beacon in each window display, or beside a VM display in-store would allow shoppers to be shown product collections with links to save or buy them online (shop the window, shop the look etc

5 – Speak to customer services 

A specific Physical Web Beacon could link to a messaging platform (e.g. FB Messenger) and allow shoppers to talk to remote sales staff, customer service staff or Bots. Useful when store colleagues are busy, especially during peak periods.

Physical Web Beacons and Retail

Trialing Physical Web Beacons

We think the time is right for trialing Physical Web Beacons. While the technology is still niche in terms of consumer awareness and adoption, there are good reasons to early and start in-store trials;

  • Beacons are very low cost to deploy. Initial trials can simply point users to the current eCommerce site, so no need for heavy development at this stage
  • Google is updating and improving the Physical Web Experience all the time. So, having a live trial gives you insight on this evolving platform, including shopper adoption rates
  • You’ll steal a march on the competition. A controlled, early stage, trial will help you prepare for what we think will be The Physical Web’s eventual emergence as a mainstream in-store channel.

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