Eighteen months ago, beacon technology was hailed as the next big thing. Today it remains a hot topic in the retail sector but mainly because support for it is still very much divided.

Retailers signed up in the hopes of benefiting from the explosion in smartphone adoption and the changing face of social and consumer behaviour. Beacons were dubbed as the 'must have' means of communicating promotions and other marketing messages to shoppers, with the added sizzle of the executable marcomms being in-store, in real time and personalised.

The reality so far has not lived up to the hype. Poor strategy implementation has meant that results have been mixed. With so many factors out of the retailers' control and in the hands of the shopper, the expense of investing in apps has yet to deliver tangible ROI. The technology has good potential in loyalty, but it lacks the reach of its alternative, Wi-Fi tracking.

Overall Wi-Fi technology has the edge over beacons. It is simpler, more cost-effective and uses existing store operations technology without any commitment or call to action for the consumer to download an app. In addition, shoppers themselves are familiar with the benefits of two-way communication via Wi-Fi.

It strikes me though that the strengths and weaknesses of the two technologies should not be the only debate to be had. What we should consider when it comes to comparing beacon technology and Wi-Fi tracking is what retailers really want to get out of them. Are they fishing in the right pond?

It has yet to be shown if shoppers will ever derive value from retailers' beacon message prompts and stores need to look at what they want to gain from this kind of technology but Wi-Fi offers another attractive avenue of opportunity for retailers.

Rather than embracing mobile technology to push messages to shoppers, it can be used to pull back data to retailers. There are questions in the air about whether mobile data constitutes personal data. This aside, trials are well underway to establish whether the process of capturing the number of mobile devices passing by a store, in a store or within part of a store will provide valuable and actionable insights about their shoppers that they can't generate easier in other ways. With the proportion of smartphones owners always higher than the number with a specific app, data gathered in this way is a more accurate reflection of shopper habits.

If they are looking to build business from existing loyal customers and referrals, then beacons can be considered a good investment. However, they are high-risk with no guarantees on uptake. Wi-Fi tracking and other alternatives ask for zero-commitment from passing traffic – especially important with the changing shopping behaviour of millennial consumers who have lower levels of brand loyalty than older generations.

Without any doubt, mobile technology is changing the ways in which people shop, and at an unprecedented pace.  Sometimes it is all too easy to get caught up with the speed of change and think it is better to react and do something rather than sit on the sidelines. Sometimes it's not. History will tell in which pond the biggest fish will be caught.

Dr Tim Denison, director of retail intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance, will be writing a regular Essential Retail column on in-store technology and the wider retail landscape.

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