Alex and Ani Rolls Out Swirl’s Bluetooth Beacons at 40 Stores

By Claire Swedberg

Swirl Networks' solution enables the fashion retailer to track shoppers' in-store locations, and to send targeted product information to their smartphones. Kenneth Cole and Timberland plan similar rollouts.

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Jewelry and apparel retailer Alex and Ani has deployed Bluetooth beacons at all 40 of its branded stores. In so doing, the retailer hopes to better engage with customers, by sending data directly to their mobile phones while they shop. In-store mobile marketing company Swirl Networks provided the solution, which consists of one to three Swirl SecureCast beacons at each store that transmit a unique ID number to customers’ phones. If a shopper has a Swirl In-Store Explorer application running on his or her handset, that individual can receive product information on the phone, based on the in-store location of that beacon (and, thus, that customer), while the store can collect information regarding customer interest and traffic.

Alex and Ani is developing its own app that mobile phone users equipped with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology will be able to download. Planned for release ahead of the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sales event in November 2014, the app is expected to attract a larger number of users to the technology. The company completed a two-month pilot last summer at two of its stores, using the SecureCast beacons, the smartphone shopper app and Swirl’s Marketing Console software (for managing the beacons and analyzing customer usage). According to Ryan Bonifacino, Alex and Ani’s digital strategy VP, the retailer found that the technology provided a means to communicate with customers and potentially increase sales, and to use business analytics provided by the software that could help Alex and Ani identify how it should stock departments and market its products.

The retailer hopes to better engage with customers by sending data directly to their mobile phones as they shop.

Two other companies have also piloted the Swirl Networks solution, including the beacons, the Marketing Console software and the smartphone app: Timberland and Kenneth Cole. Both national retailers intend to proceed with permanent deployments later this year, says Deidre Moore, Swirl Networks’ director of marketing.

Since launching two stores in 2011, Bonifacino says, Alex and Ani has grown exponentially. “We’ve had three years of hyper-growth,” he reports. The retailer operates 40 branded stores, but also sells its products at dozens of boutiques and department stores worldwide. It reported sales of $230 million in 2013, and employs 1,100 workers.

Ryan Bonifacino, Alex and Ani’s digital strategy VP

Approximately one year ago, Bonifacino says he began examining Bluetooth beacon technology as a means of better reaching out to customers, with what he calls a “virtual tap on the shoulder.” Bonifacino says he and his team have pursued an aggressive approach to reaching customers, by identifying technology trends and innovative marketing concepts. Not long after planning for the Bluetoogh beacon technology pilot began, Apple released support for what it calls iBeacon BLE technology in its new operating system (see Companies Deliver New Apps for Bluetooth Beacons), and promoted the technology by installing beacons at its own stores. As such, Bonifacino describes Alex and Ani’s early interest in iBeacon technology as being partly strategic and partly good luck.

The company sought a way to get customers’ attention as soon as they arrive, and to help them find the products they seek. “For us,” Bonifacino states, “it’s about getting content to the customer,” rather than offering sales or coupons.

In mid-2013, Swirl Networks provided Alex and Ani with the beacons and smartphone app, as well as software to manage the transmitted data from users’ phones or tablets, to be piloted at two store locations. After completing the two-month pilot, Alex and Ani began installing the beacons at all of its U.S.-based stores, which took place throughout the past few weeks. SecureCast beacons—circular, battery-powered devices measuring 2 inches in diameter—can be quickly attached by means of a peel-and-stick adhesive backing.

A young company, Swirl was founded in August 2011, with the goal of providing a Bluetooth beacon solution to the retail market. The system includes Swirl’s own Bluetooth beacon; however, the technology can work with other companies’ Bluetooth beacons as well. “Our secret sauce is our software,” Moore says. Swirl’s Marketing Console software enables retailers not only to share promotional data with app users, but also to track the movements of phones and provide analytic data to retailers based on that movement data.

The SecureCast beacons and Swirl In-Store Explorer app can operate with any phone or tablet running iOS 7 or a later version, as well as the Android operating system, version 4.3 or higher.

The retailer is developing its own app that users with BLE-enabled mobile phones will be able to download.

To use the solution, a shopper must download the free Swirl app from the iTunes or Google Play website. Once installed, In-Store Explorer allows a phone to receive transmissions from beacons at Alex and Ani stores, as well as at other retailers using the Swirl solution. The app need not be open as a customer enters the store—though the phone must be turned on—as long as that individual has granted the store permission.

During the app’s installation, the phone receives a text message asking whether the user would like to opt in to the system. If the shopper agrees to this, the app opens, after which not only will he or she receive promotional information about products relevant to that store, the current date (such as Valentine’s Day) or a particular department, but the store will also be able to track that person’s phone as he or she moves from one department to another (assuming multiple beacons are installed). In that way, Alex and Ani can monitor dwell times in specific departments for each phone (and, thus, each shopper), and can base display strategies on that information. The beacons can transmit to phones at a configurable range of 5 feet up to as much as 300 feet.

By monitoring the phone’s movements, the store could also track a specific shopper’s interests. For example, if an individual always moves to a particular department, he or she would receive product information specific to that department upon entering the store.

Because the Alex and Ani phone app is not yet available, the number of users will initially be limited to those with the Swirl In-Store Explorer app; as such, the retailer does not yet have specific details about how much the system could, for example, boost sales. However, Bonifacino says, the objective is to help educate users regarding products—and that, he reports, is proving to work well with those already using the system. Of those pilot participants who had received in-store details about products on their phones via the Swirl system, he says, 75 percent engaged with that media by selecting prompts to learn more about specific items.

Alex and Ani’s rollout of beacons at its stores nationwide is a validation of the important role that in-store mobile marketing will have on the shopping experience of the future, says Hilmi Ozguc, Swirl Networks’ CEO. “Over the coming months,” he states, “we expect to see many more retailers announcing pilot tests and subsequent national rollouts.”