NFC is dead, long live Bluetooth LE

Andrew Dark, CEO of ZBD, discusses the death of NFC and its heir apparent, Bluetooth LE.

Bluetooth Low Energy

Been shopping lately? Of course you have. ‘Tis the season to spend a mountain of money on gifts while being subjected to the same Christmas songs, over and over and over again. And be jolly.

The Christmas shopping experience has become a little jollier in recent years with the smartphone playing the role of the all-powerful shopping assistant, providing users with the ability to check product information, while browsing items on the shop floor. But why are some retailers and technology vendors promoting NFC as an enabler for consumer interaction?

Installing a small number of static points where shoppers “touch and go” to gain general data could provide a moderately useful addition to the store infrastructure. However, proposing to embed NFC tags into every shelf to enable self-scanning or simply to provide incremental product data is madness.

This method of engagement would require shoppers to present their NFC enabled phone (which are relatively scarce - imagine a sign saying “iPhones not used here”!) to within a 5cm radius of the product that has aroused their interest. It also conveniently overlooks that, in this context, the humble barcode renders NFC tags redundant as every smartphone can download a mobile “barcode-scanner” app that can access not only the data on the shelf edge, but scan the actual product barcode itself.

Instead Bluetooth beacons are increasingly being seen as the next key enabler of customer engagement on the shop floor. Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE, as it is commonly known, is supported by all smartphone manufacturers and is compatible with some of the earliest versions of the Bluetooth that we all use to connect our external audio devices.

BLE is a mechanism of communicating with smartphones within a short range, from a few centimetres to up to 20m away. Electronic shelf-labelling (ESL) that combines with BLE will enable retailers to provide consumers with a more interactive experience in the store. They are also considerably less expensive than NFC tags. Your average supermarket could be covered by BLE ESLs for one tenth of the cost of equipping it with NFC enabled ESLs.

BLE ESLs allow retailers to proactively push promotions and individualised messaging out to consumers when they arrive in the store. But more than that, their micro-location capabilities can also track which aisle the consumer is in and which products they are browsing. When combined with a retailers’ loyalty app, this makes it possible to present shoppers with promotional offers that are uniquely tailored to them, based on their historic shopping habits or behaviour during that visit.

The ordeal of Christmas shopping in future will be transformed by stores that offer you product recommendations and information and direct you to particular products. Subject to consumer opt-in, a BLE based ESL solution can also provide store operators with detailed analysis of how customers navigate through their stores, helping them to gain insight into the areas in which shoppers paused and the offers that they perused. Matching this data with the actual purchases made will give retailers yet another advantage in targeting the right merchandise and pricing to the most appropriate shopper.

NFC’s strengths lie in payment. Over the last year, we have seen a number of stores introduce NFC / contactless payment to simplify customer interaction at the till. It has also been successfully deployed on some major cities’ transport networks, putting an end to rifling through pocket change to find the right bus fare.

But these successes are in stark contrast to any benefit that NFC can offer shoppers at the shelf edge. We have become a new breed of consumer, one who expects to engage with brands and products before and while making the decision to buy. We don’t want to place our phones in front of every product we may be interested in and we certainly don’t want to have to select a particular brand of smartphone just so we can go shopping on equal terms with our peers.

Retailers need to take advantage of consumers’ increased thirst for knowledge and proactively provide them with information, recommendations and product reviews. Smarter retailers attract smarter shoppers, who buy better gifts. And surely everyone wants that for Christmas. The unwanted Christmas jumper could – and should – be banished to the annals of Christmas past.

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