Target gets smart about beacons

Target has revealed some clever twists

Although there are many pros and cons to Target's initial beacon deployment — including a privacy policy that pretty much lets it do anything it wants with collected data — the retailer has revealed some clever twists to beacon-powered programs. The further — and more creatively — a retailer gets away using beacons as mini-ad-broadcasters, the better.

My two favorites from Target's announcement, although both were in the "not yet but soon" category:

  • "The ability to dynamically re-sort your shopping list as you move through the store, the way smartphone maps reroute when you veer off course." I'm not used to gushing about Target — I'm really not — but, guys, this is elegance and brilliance. The purpose of this app is not to push an unneeded product on a shopper, nor to try to upsell a higher-end version or boost the quantity. This is literally about making it easier to get your shopping done at Target.

The idea is it will automatically push to the top of the list items that are physically near you — thanks to Wi-Fi and beacon triangulation. (Some reports referenced the ability to help shoppers find items in the store, but that wasn't among the things that Target confirmed, even for a future release.)

  • "You can request the help of a store team member right from your phone." On the plus side, this could be a powerful feature, truly bridging the convenience of mobile with the personal touch of in-store. On the cautious side, Target worded this one very carefully. The app can "request" assistance. It said nothing about delivering. The back-end system and store management instructions will tell all. Presumably, it's a rare moment when Target employees have nothing to do. How will associates be alerted to a mobile request for help? Much more important, what will be their management instructions? If an associate is stocking a shelf, will that mobile message take precedence? If no one is standing in line, can the associate leave the point-of-sale station? Will it leverage the same beacon/Wi-Fi combo to alert the associate who is nearest that customer?

Here's where this get tricky. A service that can summon a store member is always pleasant, but it becomes truly valuable — and perhaps even a reason to shop at Target — during the most hectic days, which is when finding and getting the attention of an associate is most challenging. How will this feature do on Black Friday or Dec. 23 or Labor Day?

When shoppers walk into a Target on one of those ultra-busy days, they understand that it's hard to find an associate to assist. They're not happy about it, but they understand it. But if they start clicking away on a mobile beckon-an-associate button and no one shows up, that's a very different bucket of Target fish. The app sets expectations that the stores may simply be unable to deliver. Resequencing shopping lists is a feature that will work on Dec. 23. Summoning an associate? Not likely.

Some other concerns about the Target beacon announcement.

  • "Don’t worry about being overwhelmed with pop-ups — we’re going to limit the amount you receive to two per shopping trip, and we’ll make sure the alerts and in-app updates provide compelling content and offers." For starters, Target is drawing distinctions that I doubt many of its shoppers will. It is differentiating between pop-up alerts, in-app updates, a Target Run (social-media-like) page and other areas of this app.

If the point of this promise is "Fear not. We won't be constantly bothering and distracting you during your trip. We'll only show two pieces of information during each trip," then that's very generous. Indeed, perhaps overly so, given that there might be more content I want to know about. But it is only offering to limit pop-ups, which is just one small feature of the app.

Bottom line: If you don't want to be bombarded by messages, shop elsewhere — or don't opt-in to our features.

That said, Target touches on a legitimate concern when it offers any self-imposed limit at all. The problem comes in places like shopping malls, where a huge number of stores are right next to each other. Even if every retailer with beacons agrees to a limit of two messages, that could easily mean that a shopper could see 50 or more messages while walking through the mall — assuming that shopper has downloaded and opted-in to enough retailers.

I know this is heresy, but if the number of alerts is not somehow centralized, shoppers will get deluged with offers and will start deactivating alerts — some have suggested the mobile OS, but controlling it at the mall level might be more practical.

As for Target's promise that "we’ll make sure the alerts and in-app updates provide compelling content and offers," there are areas where Target has credibility and areas where it doesn't. Let's place this statement firmly in area two.

  • "You must download or update to the latest version of the Target iPhone app (version 7.4 or higher) and enable Bluetooth in your phone’s settings."

Ah, Bluetooth and the security settings that are every cyberthief's fantasy. "There are a large number of Bluetooth sniffing and wardriving software out there. We recommend people keep Bluetooth off," said Wolfgang Goerlich, a cybersecurity strategist at CBI, an IT risk management company. He adds that there are essentially no ways to secure Bluetooth communications, which are essential for beacon interactions.

This is — for the moment — an unavoidable beacon issue. Beacons need Bluetooth, and Bluetooth means security holes. Riding Target's Wi-Fi while also walking around with Bluetooth wide open is doubly asking for trouble. Target is offering some nice features, but it is asking more from its shoppers than its shoppers realize.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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