Microsoft Lights Up Beacons for Retailers

By Pedro Hernandez | Posted August 31, 2015

The Microsoft Retail Experience Center lies within the company's sprawling Redmond, Wash., headquarters. A portion of the warehouse-sized building is devoted to demonstrating how merchants can increase consumer engagement—and ultimately sales—by employing cloud services and converting the iPhone and other smartphones from devices that merchants fear into virtual sales staff.

A major problem that brick-and-mortar retailers, both big and small, face today is called "showrooming."  Essentially, shoppers visit a store and check out a product to see how well it looks, feels or performs in person. Instead of buying a pair of jeans or gadget right then and there, they pull out their smartphones; load up a browser or shopping app; and complete the purchase online at another retailer that offers the lowest price.

Microsoft helps mom-and-pop stores combat this trend with an ecosystem of cloud-based products and services that put the consumer at the center of the experience—and helps put an end to showrooming.

Resembling a shopping mall, albeit a small one, the Microsoft Retail Experience Center is an interactive showcase packed with technologies that can transform an otherwise routine shopping trip into a positive customer experience.

Microsoft Retail Experience Center

The "coffee bar" is part of the Microsoft Retail Experience Center.

Beacons Bring Internet Retailing to the Physical World

A tour of the Microsoft Retail Experience Center kicks off with a quick stop at a coffee shop. A cloud-connected system of low-power Bluetooth beacons from Footmarks allows caffeine addicts to "jump the queue," said Microsoft Director and Retail Industry Tech Strategist, Marty Ramos.

Gone is the ritual of rattling off a coffee order and providing the proper spelling of one's name for the millionth time. With a tap of their smartphones, customers can instead order and pay for coffee before they reach the counter while beacons signal the baristas as they approach by detecting their smartphones.

When they finally reach the counter, customers need only pick up their cup and continue on their way. Similar to how online subscription services can keep households well-stocked with food, detergent, and even printing supplies, the Footmark beacons can help keep shoppers caffeinated, fed, or smartly attired by tracking customer behavior and reducing friction at checkout.

"Online gets it," said Ramos about how so called "etailers" use a wealth of information about consumers to hone their marketing efforts. A smattering of beacons in a store can "build a heatmap to see where customers spend most of their time." This allows staff to better focus their efforts on high-impact selling activity.

Admittedly, there are privacy concerns, but consumers seem largely fine with the idea of letting others track their shopping behaviors. It's a tradeoff they're willing to make, and many already do. "You'd be surprised to see how many apps on your phone are beacon-enabled," said Ramos.

Smart Signage for All

Digital signage can help small businesses exude professionalism. Unfortunately, they can be pricey, proprietary and high-maintenance.

At the Microsoft Retail Experience Center, Ramos showed how a low-priced Intel Compute Stick (under $150 at retail) can turn practically any HDTV display into a full-featured Windows terminal capable of displaying promotions and much more. Once plugged into an HDMI port and connected to a Wi-Fi network, a Windows 10-powered Compute Stick lets businesses use the in-store display solution of their choice, or create their own.

At closing, staff can gather around the same screen and explore that's day's sales performance. Courtesy of Microsoft's own growing cloud-based analytics capabilities, along with those of the software giant's rivals, small businesses can now affordably dive deep into real-time sales data to see what works and what doesn't, providing the much-needed agility required to quickly course-correct in the hyper-competitive world of retailing.

Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.

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