Small Bookseller Flips On the Switch for Beacons

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Bluetooth beacons integrated into new LED lighting serves as a one-two punch for a better-lit store and increased customer outreach.

Quick! Name a technology-focused sector of the retail industry. Brick-and-mortar booksellers might not land high on your list, but don't be fooled by their, well, bookish reputation. Perhaps more than any other type of retailer, booksellers have been forced to evolve and change as e-commerce has reshaped the way in which consumers purchase reading material.

"We have always tried to pivot and accept technology that helps us," explains Pete Mulvihill, a co-owner of 48-year-old San Francisco bookstore Green Apple Books. "We accept Bitcoins, for example, which not a lot of brick-and-mortar businesses accept. In terms of technology, we like throwing things to the wall and seeing what sticks. If it doesn't work out, then we move on."

New releases on display at Green Apple Books, including Kevin Ashton's How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

Last year, Green Apple Books made a big move—especially for an independent bookstore in the age of Amazon and e-books: It opened a second location. "Brick-and-mortar stores are not going away," Mulvihill says. "[Consumers] get the 'shop local' message, and bookstores are still vibrant and add character to neighborhoods."

In addition to its original location in the city's Richmond neighborhood, there is now Green Apple Books On the Park, located in the Inner Sunset neighborhood, just a block off Golden Gate Park's panhandle. At the first location—a building that predates the city's 1906 earthquake—the original gas-powered lamps are still in place (though are no longer used). That's quite a contrast to the new store, where fixtures containing cutting-edge LED technology and integrated Bluetooth beacons illuminate the retail space, while also supporting an application designed to boost customer loyalty and engagement.

Mulvihill and his co-owners upgraded the lighting at the new location, which opened in a former video store last August, out of necessity. "We had some problems with dark spots inside the store," he explains, "and the old [compact fluorescent] fixtures were big and clunky, and they also buzzed loudly."

Intense Lighting, an LED fixture manufacturer based in Anaheim, Calif., provided the new lighting for the store, with LED hardware made by solid-state lighting technology provider Bridgelux, based in Livermore, Calif. Integrated into six of the LED chipsets inside fixtures spread throughout the store are modules made by Boston startup ByteLight. Each ByteLight module contains a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radio.

While it installed the lights some months ago, Green Apple Books has just launched an application, which ByteLight built using Apple's Passbook iPhone application, that sends customers—who opt in by scanning a QR code inside the store—special offers and alerts, based on where they are inside the store. Near the entrance, for instance, the app will trigger a coupon for 10 percent off the price of any purchase. But the system is designed to send specialized messages as well. For example, if a customer running the app spends more than a few minutes in the back of the store during an author reading, the system can send that individual a message containing a link to a list of upcoming events.

Pete Mulvihill, a co-owner of Green Apple Books

Lighting fixtures with integrated beacons, such as these, save retailers the step of installing individual beacons throughout a space they wish to monitor. What's more, because the beacons are powered by the fixture, there are no batteries to change.

The ByteLight module also contains a chip that controls the LED's light output, causing it to flash very fast—at well over 300 hertz, and thus much too quickly to be perceptible to the human eye. Using this technology, known as visible light communications (VLC), the ByteLight module can communicate to a smartphone or tablet through its camera lens (assuming the phone or tablet is out in the open and not in a pocket or bag). The ByteLight software can also determine where the customer is located, based on the VLC signal strength, at a much higher level of accuracy than can be achieved by using Bluetooth radio to determine location, according to Dan Ryan, ByteLight's co-founder and CEO. "Beacons are great but do not provide precise location," he explains. "With beacons, you can determine what section of the store the customer is in—but with VLC, you can get sub-meter accuracy, so can tell which aisle the consumer is in."

A number of other ByteLight customers are using the product's VLC capabilities, but it requires a customized smartphone application rather than one built on Apple's Passbook platform. Therefore, Green Apple Books is not using VLC at this time. That might change in the future, Mulvihill says, if the store decides to create its own app, but first he wants to evaluate the beacon-based app's effectiveness.

"I'm not yet sure exactly how we'll use the beacon program [in the future]," Mulvihill states. "We do have privacy concerns; we want to make sure we're not doing anything that feels invasive to customers." However, he feels confident that the deployment—with signage in the store explaining how to opt in and the need to scan the QR code on the signs to do so—makes the technology transparent. Besides, he adds, "our digital engagement via social media has been a great way for us to engage with customers," so he expects the beacon system to be well-received by shoppers.

The new lighting system has also brought additional immediate benefits, Mulvihill says, beyond vastly improving the illumination inside the store. "You can see into the store now, even from across the street. I've talked to people who didn't know we had opened up a new location, before the new lighting was installed, even though they'd walked right past it."

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At the new store, the retail space is illuminated by fixtures containing LED technology and integrated Bluetooth beacons.

The LEDs provide 70 percent more lumens than the lights they replaced and should reduce the energy costs of lighting the store by 30 percent, says Aaron Merrill, Bridgelux's director of production marketing. In addition, he notes, advancements in LED technology have allowed his company to boost the color rendering index, producing light that is a much richer, more natural hue than that of early LED lights, which produced light that felt cooler.

Retailers are hoping that warmer light—especially in dressing rooms, where having good lighting is key—will lead to improve sales. How a book looks inside a store might not seem as important as, say, a suit or a wedding dress, but Mulvihill says that as publishers compete against digital media, they are becoming increasingly concerned about quality. "They're putting a lot of money into making books beautiful," he says.

Photos provided by Nick Otto (www.nickotto.net).