As the physical and digital worlds of retail continue to interweave, more and more beacon solution providers across the market are recognizing the need for retailers to have better tools to gather data on their customers. But Gimbal, for one, is in a unique spot, its Chief Operating Officer Kevin Hunter told MPD CEO Karen Webster. Gimbal, Hunter says, goes far beyond providing a beacon platform with a digital ownership component – rather, it hones in on helping merchants understand their audience prior to customers’ arrival in stores, as they approach the store, when they are inside and after they have gone. And it does all of that without being intrusive and adding friction to the shopping experience. How?
KW: Gimbal uses beacon technology to bridge the online and offline world. I’d love to get from you what makes Gimbal different, as there are lots of beacon solutions in the market.
KH: We see that we’re in a unique spot. We look at bridging the physical and digital world a little bit differently than most, and a lot of it comes from our heritage. We really saw that mobile was that bridge between the digital and physical world, allowing people to be put in places by leveraging different location proximity components to understand an audience better.
What we saw was an opportunity to understand this audience from beginning to end. Yes, we have fantastic beacons with a great differentiator of digital ownership on top, but that’s only one component of our overall platform. We have the ability to understand the audience from beginning to end, understand where they go prior to arrival, and understand when they get closer or have gone inside. We have the ability to put this digital journey in the physical world together, from beginning to end. That’s what people understand our value as – understanding that bridge, leveraging mobile, to have that conversation.
KW: That sounds great. Let’s get a little more specific – what are you actually doing with merchants to enable engagement? And are they seeing results?
KH: Beacons are definitely shiny objects right now. Merchants and retailers see the value of being able to understand their audience better in their environment. When we talk to retailers and venue providers, we explain to them that the beacons are only one part of the conversation. What they are asking us is for the ability to help them understand that audience, and the beacon is the shiny object, but they really want to understand through mobile as well. So we’re using technologies that are prevalent in mobile today to allow this retailer to really have that next level of conversation. So we’re using technologies that are very prevalent in mobile today to allow this retailer to have that next-level, more intimate conversation and understand the audience as they start to arrive and go inside. They aren’t just focused on one component, but a strategy that makes sense to consumers for the best engagement possible.
KW: You make a good point – there are tens of thousands of beacon installations in the retail environment, and it’s still experimental. What are some of the best practices that you offer merchants and venues you deal with to make it valuable and not intrusive?
KH: One of the best things we’ve learned by doing this with quite a few large retailers is to first understand the audience. Merchants don’t have to communicate with them right off the bat. They need to understand the data and interactions better before they have that first start of a conversation. So what we’ve seen with retailers is a crawl-walk-run strategy.
Retailers want to make sure that any meaningful conversation, any component of that conversation, is the right one. The best way to do that is to listen or understand first – think before you speak. They’re using that to understand how to engage with customers best, and that’s resonating very well.
The other side of it is that we talk about the thousands of beacons out there, and one of the reasons we’re at the top of the industry right now is because we have differentiators that allow merchants to protect that conversation. We have a digital ownership model associated with our proximity beacons that allows them to deploy beacons and decide who can use them. With this ownership, a merchant can buy, hold and deploy a beacon, and if the merchant doesn’t have security or ownership on top of that, anybody can use it, including competitors. We provide this ownership that allows them to protect that engagement, and by doing that, it gives the retailer the comfort and allows them to provide new opportunities for their partners to engage. It opens up new revenue models, but also gives the consumers security and protection they need.
KW: Let’s talk about the debate over privacy and beacons that’s going on now. Where does Gimbal stand with respect to that, and how do you protect consumer privacy in environments where retailers are using beacon technology?
KH: If we take a step back and look at all the different types of technologies retailers put in their stores today, there are all kinds of technologies to understand foot traffic, segments, and more. They are putting in cameras and Wi-Fi and other things that consumers don’t necessarily get a chance to opt out of. At Gimbal, we realized it was all about the opt-in. We want our partners to make sure they’re transparent – that location services, macro or micro, are being used and are valuable.
With beacon technology, since it’s through an app, we get app contacts for that specific location. That really puts the choice in the consumers’ hand, because they have the ability to not opt-in or opt-in, change my mind afterwards, or just never use it again or delete the app. For consumers, beacons or location services through phones give them more control over other technologies that retailers have.
As long as they have a choice, they feel like they are in control.
KW: So Gimbal was one of the first iBeacon licensees. You have rolled out the solution to all Apple stores in the U.S. How was this partnership formed?
KH: We were one of the first iBeacon licensees, and were one of the first to rollout nationwide with a retailer – Apple – in 2013. We were definitely ahead of the curve. Given our background and that we were already working on many location and proximity projects when we were part of Qualcomm, that gave us the opportunity to be the best in class from the beginning, and continue that through an Apple deployment relationship.
KW: So what is Apple doing with the beacons?
KH: Only Apple can really answer that one. They did see a lot of value in understanding how to engage their shoppers better, but specifics would have to come from Apple.
KW: Let’s talk about how to leverage the ecosystem and the platform you’re enabling for retailers. You talked about the fact that you have this digital ownership opt-in parameter for what it is you’re offering to retailers. How should they be thinking about partnerships that allow them to add functionality to make beacons more valuable to the consumer, but also respect those opt-in rights?
KH: The first is to make sure to respect the opt-in rights, and understand that not all audiences are created equal – understand the communication style of any individual. Also, it’s not always about giving an offer or talking to a customer through mobile. Because a consumer is in the environment and has opted in, he or she can actually influence the world as well. For instance, maybe the individual will receive better customer service because the customer service or sales rep knows he or she is there, and that they are attached to the loyalty program. It’s not always about how mobile becomes part of the conversation, but about how the world around us becomes part of it. I love to see retailers take advantage of that side of it – that’s where it becomes more serendipitous.
Gimbal’s customer GameStop has done a great job – they’ve recently deployed beacons in some of their stores. There’s a YouTube video out there that shows all of the different use cases that GameStop is thinking about, and it’s really fantastic. They take into consideration the customer loyalty side, the purchase side – a comprehensive way of understanding the customer.
KW: Do you see any use cases where beacons are enabling payments, or making the process more frictionless in a retail environment?
KH: Absolutely. When we were part of Qualcomm, we enabled our coffee shop with beacons. There was a beacon at the cash register and a mobile app, and what we saw was that as you walked up, the POS system, which was a tablet, basically recognized you were at the front of the line. It was very frictionless when you went to pay – and that was only because you were standing right in front of the register. I felt special because they called me by name, they knew my drink because of my frequent visits and loyalty, and charged it to my proximity card. That’s because of beacons – because of the proximity component. People were therefore spending more – they saw a 25 percent uplift in sales, so we felt early on that this was a great opportunity.
KW: I can’t wait to see more of that happen in the retail environment. I want to get an understanding of beacons and the relationship with things outside of retail. It strikes me that beacons could be used in many environments to make interactions better, smarter and more personal perhaps in the home and in health care environments. What are you doing in those venues?
KH: There is a lot of interest in a lot of different verticals outside retail. Retailers are the national first – in fact, venues were the national first when you look at things we did with the Miami Dolphins and in baseball, and how to leverage fan loyalty by putting beacons inside the stadium. We created a platform that would allow many different verticals to build value propositions on top by being the best physical to digital bridge out there. That allowed them to enhance their experiences without having to worry about that bridge, and create unique value.
Beacons also allow people to discover new things about certain areas – that could be in a city or enterprise or at home. If we can help people discover things that are relevant and interesting to them, we can help enhance their lives. We think we are in a great position to make that happen with our platform and partners.
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Chief Operating Officer, Gimbal
Kevin Hunter is Chief Operating Officer of Gimbal where he is responsible for guiding Gimbal’s strategy and product vision, while overseeing day to day operations and building a world class team. As a member of the founding team of Gimbal, Kevin is recognized as a visionary in the mobile data industry and for establishing Gimbal as the leading mobile engagement platform.
Prior to Gimbal’s carve-out, Kevin led product management for the Gimbal platform from its beginning within Qualcomm Labs into the Qualcomm Retail Solutions division.
Kevin brings more than 15 years of experience in mobile having developed and commercialized some of the very first data services and mobile websites while at Sprint. During his six years there, Kevin was responsible for device development and realization and pioneered mobile television as the principal product engineer for the Emmy® Award winning Sprint TV.
Before Sprint, Kevin founded a technology and consulting business, was a software engineer in the financial services industry and a research assistant at the University of Kansas.
Kevin did his undergraduate in computer science at the University of Kansas and is the co-inventor on 17 U.S. patents. He continues to evolve the way in which end users and businesses leverage mobile technology.