What is BLE | Bluetooth Low Energy? A Guide for Retailers

What is BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy)?

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by Scott Roberts on 2-16-15 in Technology

There has been a lot of hype around Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE, aka Bluetooth Smart), in retail – especially throughout the past year and a half. However, many people are still in the dark about the emerging technology and find themselves asking the question: what is Bluetooth Low Energy?

According to Business Insider, there will be a massive surge in the installation and usage of BLE in the next three years. With a predicted 287 percent growth, this technology will likely become a significant component of the retail industry and could affect how retailers do business.
It is important to note that predictions and expectations point to a large increase in the usage of BLE technology, the expected benefits of implementation have been inflated. The following graphic illustrates the hype cycle that all new technologies go through, and BLE is no different. Given that BLE is early in its lifecycle, this article seeks to provide realistic expectations for this new technology.

Bluetooth Low Energy BLE Bluetooth Smart

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle

OK, now tell me – what is BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy)?

First, we need to look at the benefits promised by this new technology. BLE gives context to the environment around you. BLE allows smartphone users to have rich, interactive connections to their surroundings and move their mobile experience beyond the mobile handset.

 

So what exactly does that mean and how does it work?

A BLE beacon is a small device – usually powered by battery or USB – that emits a Bluetooth Low Energy signal. A modern smartphone in the vicinity can pick up the signal being emitted by the beacon and gain some insight into its own positioning based on knowledge of the beacon’s placement.

It is important not to confuse BLE with “classic” Bluetooth; despite falling under the same name, they are entirely different technologies. Bluetooth consumes more power and transmits farther and with more data. It is suited for streaming media such as playing music on Bluetooth speakers or taking a call through a Bluetooth headset. BLE transmits less data over shorter distances using much less power than Bluetooth. BLE is designed for periodic transfers of very small amounts of data, such as beacons providing proximity in a store or a medical device providing glucose measurements to a doctor’s tablet or patient monitor.

To further confuse things, Apple has their own implementation of BLE that they call iBeacon. Apple’s iBeacon defines what is communicated over BLE and at what interval. How the data is transmitted is still defined by the BLE specification.

I still don’t really understand how it works. Can you give an example?

It is probably easier to use an analogy to explain the more intricate aspects of how beacons are identified, how they communicate, what their range is and how often they communicate. Imagine two ShopperTrak beacons named Frank and Annie. Frank stands in the men’s shoe section of a San Francisco Macstroms Department Store yelling, “I am Frank from ShopperTrak; I’m in the men’s shoe section” every minute. Annie is standing in another Macstroms in Cleveland shouting, “I am Annie from ShopperTrak; I’m in the women’s dress section” every five minutes.

Accompanied by a shopper assistant, a retail customer walks into one of the Macstroms stores. The assistant recognizes the ShopperTrak name being shouted. Using Frank or Annie’s name, the assistant looks in a private ShopperTrak address book to find out more information about the shouting beacon. Based on the information being shouted and the information in the address book, the shopper assistant now knows what store he is in, the location in the store, and what is nearby. The personal shopper can now provide contextually relevant information and offers to the shopper based on the proximity to the shouting beacon.

Each beacon can vary how loudly it is “shouting” – which is known as the transmit power. The more loudly the beacon shouts, the faster it will run out of power. Each beacon can also vary how often it makes its proclamation, which is known as the advertising interval. The more frequently the beacon “speaks,” the faster the power will deplete. The iBeacon specification defines an advertising interval of every 100 milliseconds (1/10th of a second). This interval is fairly frequent and can deplete the battery life faster than many beacon manufacturers publicize.

In the case above, a smartphone with an app to listen for beacons acts as the shopper assistant.

Each beacon provides three pieces of information required by the iBeacon specification:

  • A unique identifier for the organization the beacon belongs to: ShopperTrak
  • A name that can be used to identify the store where the beacon is located: The beacon name
  • A name that precisely identifies where in that store the beacon is located: The store section

These values are referred to as the UUID, Major, and Minor.

Wait, doesn’t GPS already provide location to a smartphone?

Yes, it does. However, GPS uses up a lot of battery power to figure out where you are. In fact, if your phone just needs coarse location it will try to use WiFi positioning in order to save battery life. GPS also doesn’t work very well in many indoor locations.
BLE beacons go beyond providing indoor location; they provide proximity. Location is a very static measurement: you are standing at latitude x and longitude y. Proximity lets you understand what you are near. Proximity doesn’t have to be static, either. You can be in the proximity of a store shelf with a new product, a store associate who can answer your question, or another customer with the same question you have.
GPS answers “where”; beacons answer “how close am I?”

I understand what a BLE beacon is now. How can I use them in my business?

A beacon provides context to the surrounding environment. That context can be used to help determine intent or interest. Other information known by the app can be woven into the context in which the app finds itself to provide a more personalized experience to the user.

 

There are many ways that retailers have already used beacons, and many more uses that have not been dreamed up yet. Here are just a few use cases where a beacon could be used within a retailer’s app.

  • If a customer walks in more than two times in a week, the app can welcome the shopper back and offer a loyalty discount
  • When a customer walks to the jeans section of the store and dwells for over 20 minutes, the app can provide an incentive to try on a pair of jeans
  • If your loyalty program is integrated into your application, an app can provide discounts to a certain tier of users – e.g., suggest purses you think a user at that tier may like and offer a special discount
  • Provide roaming beacons (e.g., a tablet) to associates. Allow customers to ask for assistance from nearby associates
  • Enable a user to find a product, then find where that product is on a map in relation to is the shopper and provide directions

There are also solutions available if a retailer does not have its own app, or the app does not have sufficient penetration for meaningful metrics to be generated. Other third-party apps can be permitted to “ride” on a retailer’s network with permission. By using the retailer’s beacon network, the third-party app is able to show value by driving shoppers into the store. The retailer is able to find third-party application partners who perform best at driving traffic into their stores.

The data from either a retailer or permitted third-party applications can be used to provide key metrics on shopper behavior. These data can include draw rate, app penetration, offer conversion, dwell time, cross shopping, and shopping frequency.

ShopperTrak is able to help you with your beacon and engagement strategy – whether you have your own app with millions of downloads or no app at all. We have the ability to help you create and execute your engagement and analytics strategy on our beacon network. With either solution, we’ll help you gather metrics that inform your strategy to increase your traffic, conversion rate and basket size.

Read more posts by Scott Roberts

Scott is Director of Video Analytics and Product Management at ShopperTrak.

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