Positioning-based in-store marketing is something more commonly found in Walmart and Apple stores than in bookstores. Using small, inexpensive, battery-powered beacons that rely on Bluetooth to transmit messages to smartphones, or LED lighting with location-based software that works much like beacons, large retailers and even sports arenas are marketing directly to customers when they walk in the door.
Since the beginning of the year, several independent booksellers have begun experimenting with beacons or will soon participate in pilots. As one of eight stores testing Facebook’s Place Tips Service, Strand Book Store in New York City became one of the first bookstores to add beacons. The Facebook program—which is also being piloted at area landmarks like Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Times Square—went live on January 29. New York City iPhones users who have activated Bluetooth and have given Facebook permission to access their location can click on place tips in their Facebook News Feed (an Android version is coming soon); photos of friends and information about the store or site automatically show up on their screen.
“I’m so excited,” said Brianne Sperber, marketing director at the Strand, which has two beacons that were recently replaced. “I want it to be compelling. But I also want it to be something we can track.” She regards place tips, and by extension beacons, as a way to build the Strand brand. “People can like our [Facebook] page, message us, and rate the store right from place tips,” Sperber explained. “It’s a new channel for us to connect with customers.” One of her favorite features lets customers view the Strand’s list of events from place tips. She looks forward to using the program to push staff picks and let customers know about special author-curated bookshelves.
But one month into the pilot, Sperber has little concrete data to share. “I’m still seeing a bump in ‘likes’ [on Facebook],” she said. “Our events have predominantly been for major figures, so I can’t say if the correlation [between use of beacons and more event attendance] is there just yet. I’m still pleased, but haven’t gone further with exploring the capabilities.” She’s waiting to hear more from Facebook about how the service is working on the backend before she delves further into its messaging capabilities.
On the other side of the country, location-based marketing is also in its early days at the new Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. Through co-owner Pete Mulvihill’s involvement in the Bay Area’s Local First program, the store was selected to receive nearly $30,000 worth of lighting from Bridgelux, a developer and manufacturer of LED lighting technology. About a half dozen of the lights use ByteLight software that enables them to act like beacons as long as users have activated Bluetooth on their smartphones and opened the Apple Passport app. Customers give their permission to Green Apple to market to them by scanning a QR code when they enter the store.
Mulvihill couldn’t be more pleased with the lighting itself, which it demoed at a press conference in late January. It resembles lighting more typically found in museums and high-end retailers. “I’ve had more comments about our lighting,” said Mulvihill. “It’s made me start to think about the lighting at our other store.” According to Bridgelux marketing director Aaron Merrill, the company chose Green Apple to showcase its Décor Class A LEDs because “books are really works of art, and people do judge a book by its cover.” Merrill sees the lighting as one more piece of the bookstore message that can be fine-tuned to direct customers to one part of the store or another.
Though the lighting is designed to keep customers in store, the LEDs operating ByteLight can also send out coupons to customers’ phones. ByteLight CEO and cofounder Dan Ryan conceded that it’s still early. “Beacons haven’t gone beyond pilot [tests],” he said.
While Green Apple and the Strand decide which steps to take next, University Bookstore at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., is getting ready to turn on its beacons. The bookstore is participating in a pilot program for college stores with Sequoia Retail Systems, which is also developing a marketing campaign based around its Traverse platform. Both the pilot and marketing effort launch later this week.
At a panel on Multi-Channel Point of Sale at Camex, Sequoia CEO Jim Zaorski spoke about the value of beacons for college stores. “It’s going to let [stores] know who [their] customers are.” Beyond that it’s also a way for college stores to compete with Amazon and other online textbook sellers on price. The platform, which supports both iOS and Android smartphones, allows students with Bluetooth enabled phones that have the store app to shop online vendors from the store. Traverse also provides an express-checkout option.
“To be a competitive bookstore in 2015, we must provide our students with the tools necessary to make intelligent textbook-buying decisions. Sequoia’s new Traverse mobile technology will allow us to communicate the necessary information our students need to make these smarter decisions and at the same time help us better understand the buying behavior of our customers,” said UBS manager Jeff Sieber in a statement.
The store is planning to use the beacons to promote sale items and can send promotional discounts based on where the student is standing in the store. The beacons can also be moved to an arena to broadcast promotions to students with the app at a game. The Traverse system will track how and where conversions occur. Other stores taking part in the pilot are planning a soft launch in April.