Market Researcher Uses Beacons to Study Shopper Behavior

By Claire Swedberg

Verve is testing a system utilizing Bluetooth beacons to track members of its research panel within a store, as well as send messages and questionnaires to them in a timely manner.

Market research firm Verve is piloting the use of beacon technology to gather automated data regarding shopper behavior and interests for its retailer customers. To date, a handful of its customers—typically, large supermarkets and other retailers—are serving as test sites for the technology, which consists of beacons installed around store shelves, point-of-sale counters and entrances, as well as an app to help the company collect data about the locations and movements of shoppers who are members of its research panel.

Verve serves its retailer customers by conducting marketing research based on panel members' interests. Each year, it conducts hundreds of research projects for clients, such as global food and drug stores and their suppliers. Verve collects data from the its panel of consumers, and then uses that information to create reports so its clients can better understand the success of their own marketing efforts, which products are of interest to buyers, and when and where sales occur, as well as improve on marketing or product placement as necessary. The panels consist of shoppers who answer questionnaires about their experiences at stores and their own preferences.

Georgina Botting

The company typically recruits its panel members via shopper loyalty programs, says Georgina Botting, a Verve research director and specialist. One of the panel members' roles is to then fill out questionnaires regarding their shopping experiences. Verve also uses in-store cameras to track the behavior of shoppers in general, in order to watch how customers navigate to and around a store fixture; which shelves, fixtures or products generate interest; how much time customers spend at specific locations; and whether those dwell times among store shelves lead to a purchase.

Cameras, however, come with limitations. Many of Verve's customers are large supermarkets, where tracking movements via cameras is impractical. "The issue we had is that each camera is very expensive," Botting explains. And the cost of the cameras themselves is not the only expense, she notes. In some cases, the company uses camera software to isolate what activity might be of interest and should be watched to collect useful data. In other cases, she says, paid employees simply sit in front of computer screens and view the camera footage to analyze what is happening within the store.

For those reasons, the use of cameras in stores has been limited. With beacon technology, Botting reports, Verve now has the "the ability to scale," by using beacons to collect data that could not be accessed simply because cameras couldn't be installed in large numbers.

The company began looking into beacon technology in summer 2014, Botting says. This spring, it began installing beacons from a variety of vendors in the stores of its customers, most of which are located in the United Kingdom and the United States. It also started using existing beacons deployed at its customers' stores, when possible. The participating stores have asked to remain unnamed.

"A lot of retailer clients are already using, or preparing to use, beacons to push offers and adverts to their customers," Botting states. In that case, the retailers offer an app that shoppers can download to receive those prompts on their phones as they come within range of beacons in the store aisles.

Those who are Verve panel members would need to use Verve's research app instead, which would enable the company to collect data about those shoppers' movements within a store, as well as send messages and questionnaires to them while they are in the building. Currently, panel members are employing an interim app that Verve has developed, but later this year, the company plans to offer an Android-based app on GooglePlay and an iOS-based app on iTunes that panel members can install on their smartphones or tablets.

When panel members who have the app on their phones, configured to respond to beacon transmissions, come within range of a beacon known to the app (and in a participating store), the app responds to the beacon transmission by pushing a pre-defined message or survey, either immediately or at a preset time. Survey questions can be linked to actual purchase behavior made by that shopper during that store visit. For instance, if a panel member regularly frequents a particular department in the store, the software can tailor questionnaires forwarded to that individual, based on that shopping behavior.

With the beacons in place, Botting says, Verve's questionnaire delivery can be timed appropriately based on a shopper's location. For instance, she says, in the traditional beacon-less method, if individuals are asked about their shopping experience hours or days after they had been at the store, they may or may not respond. Most typically, she adds, only those who have had a distinctly good or bad experience tend to recall that experience with enough clarity to want to respond to customer-satisfaction surveys. However, if the questionnaire (via the app) is sent at the moment that the individual is leaving the store, the shopper is more likely to respond with a quick assessment of the experience while it is fresh in his or her mind.

According to Botting, Verve has not yet had a chance to review the results of the Bluetooth pilots, which are just launching now. She expects more such trials to be underway later this year, followed by the permanent deployment of beacons or the use of existing in-store beacons.