Indoor positioning systems guide customers into better shopping experiences

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The ability to guide customers in a shopping center through their smartphones became possible for mall owners in 2012. Now the infrastructure is expanding into a growing number of major malls and is being tested by big retailers, all to increase customer convenience and gain greater customer insights.

StepInside uses location services on mobile devices to enable real-time integration with a mall or a store’s smartphone app, connecting visitors with special retail offers and information about mall events.

This July, StepInside — technology developed and marketed by Senion, a supplier of indoor positioning systems — went live in the world’s biggest mall: The Dubai Mall in the United Arab Emirates hosts more than 80 million visitors annually and has over 1,200 shops as well as some 200 food and beverage outlets.

In March, StepInside went live in the Ginza Six retail complex in Tokyo. The largest commercial establishment in the prestigious Ginza district, the complex’s retail space spans 500,000 square feet over eight floors and is the first in Japan to have an indoor navigation system. More than 20 million people are expected to visit each year, many tourists unfamiliar with the enormous facility.

The technology was also being installed in Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., this summer. At 5.6 million square feet, North America’s biggest mall has more than 520 retail stores and restaurants, along with hotels, the nation’s largest indoor family theme park, an aquarium and an 18-hole mini golf course.

Jill Renslow, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Mall of America, says the StepInside system allows the mall to “offer step-by-step wayfinding, a more personalized visit that caters to the guest preference and a way for visitors to more easily connect with our brands and attractions.”

“The challenge we have heard from guests,” says Tim Pate, the mall’s digital product manager, “is that this property is big and ever-changing. That’s a benefit for shoppers, but we also understand their time is valuable. If we can get guests where they need to go more quickly, they will have a better overall experience and spend time doing what they came here for — shopping, dining and entertainment — rather than asking for directions.”

Combating competition

Incorporating StepInside “not only provides modern wayfinding to shoppers, but also tools for retailers to better understand and connect with their customers,” says Christian Lundquist, CEO and co-founder of Senion.
“In a retail complex the size and popularity of the Dubai Mall, Ginza Six and Mall of America, these tools dramatically change the way people buy and sell.”

The service gives retailers and mall operators an effective way to combat the growing threat of digital retail brands which make it easier and more convenient to shop online every day. In the face of such serious competition, Lundquist says, bricks-and-mortar retailers “are trying to compete more effectively by giving consumers as many or more advantages as they might find in online stores with the addition of being able to look, feel and try on, which you get when you are actually in a store.”

Pate described the technology as “definitely a growing trend. We have seen customers demanding this across retail, sports and entertainment industries and we want to be trendsetters in our space. There is really no one like us, so we are doing this unlike anyone else.”

Integration capabilities

The indoor positioning systems work via small Bluetooth low energy beacons installed in malls or large stores. The battery-powered beacons perpetually broadcast their unique ID, which is then picked up by nearby smartphones. In the case of Mall of America, existing Wi-Fi routers with built-in Bluetooth capabilities were used instead of beacons.

Each smartphone, with the help of Bluetooth signals in the building, calculates its individual position in the mall or store; that position that can be used to deliver location-based services.

“We were able to leverage our existing infrastructure to manage the power for these devices, which helped simplify the process,” Pate says, “but this was the final phase of a massive technology installation on this property.”

StepInside also makes it possible for mall owners and retailers to send text notifications to individual customers who are in or near a location, incenting a visit or a purchase with promotional offers such as buy one, get one free or 50 percent off for the next half hour.

“If we can get guests where they need to go more quickly, they will have a better overall experience and spend time doing what they came here for — shopping, dining and entertainment — rather than asking for directions.”
— Tim Pate, Mall of America

Other applications include the ability to show consumers on their cell phone where they parked their cars. This service is just the first phase, Lundquist says: StepInside can be integrated with other technology systems such as Mappedin, a content management system that enables consumers to find what they are looking for by category, brand, product and promotion.

As time goes by, mall owners and retailers can build on StepInside’s technology by integrating systems that use more personalized information about customers such as hyper-targeted messaging, or the ability to rent or sell smart ID bracelets to track the whereabouts of a child in case they get lost in the mall.

Mall owners will also be able to discover the most- and least-trafficked areas, which would enable them to charge higher rates for heavier trafficked areas and make changes to improve the accessibility of less-traveled areas.
A technology is also in place that will let mall owners and retailers measure how many customers come to their locations because of a mobile-based app and how they could make better use of those apps to drive more customers to their locations or increase the frequency of visits.

Increased satisfaction

Lundquist says mall owners with the technology are not only basing the benefit on a financial return on investment, but on measurements that quantify how much they have increased customer satisfaction, something that leads to revenue.

Currently, 10 to 15 mall-based pilots are either active or in the planning process. Lundquist estimates about 50 percent of those will phase into real installations by next year.

Pate describes StepInside as “part of a broader ecosystem that is used to enhance the guest experience for all visitors — employees, tenants, shoppers, etc. Ideally, no matter which digital touchpoint you use in relation to Mall of America, you should have a consistent, enjoyable experience, so you know what to expect.”

Liz Parks is a Union City, N.J.-based writer with extensive experience reporting on retail, pharmacy and technology issues.

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