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When will retailers jump on the iBeacon bandwagon?

Push notification company Urban Airship hopes to make Apple's location-based system more relevant for retailers.

Urban Airship is sending out 3D-printed airships with iBeacon modules to companies interested in testing out the technology.
Urban Airship

BARCELONA, Spain -- While companies are still figuring out the best way to use Apple's location-sensing tech, iBeacon, push notification specialist Urban Airship believes it has a way to make it relevant to both retailers and consumers.

Urban Airship on Wednesday unveiled enhancements to its service, offering a new way to automate marketing messages and specifically target audiences for push notifications, or those alerts that pop up on your phone based on the apps you've downloaded. It announced compatibility with iBeacon, and hopes its smarter system will spur adoption of the location-based feature.

Urban Airship Chief Marketing Officer Brent Hieggelke believes the change is coming.

"We're going to see customers do this in retail in a thoughtful way by the end of the year," he told CNET. "You'll see a frenzy of follow-on activity."

Apple's iBeacon uses Bluetooth 4.0, also known as Bluetooth Low Energy, to detect whether an iPhone is nearby with far more accuracy than WiFi or cellular network. The idea is that when an iPhone passes a nearby iBeacon, it can trigger an action, whether that's a push notification with a greeting, a Web site, or even a video.

While there have only been a few deployments, which have largely been trials, they hint at Apple's direction in serving up new experiences in shopping malls, baseball stadiums, and other public venues.

Urban Airship, unsurprisingly, thinks getting the push notification bit of iBeacon is critical to creating something that consumers will actually like.

"We're big on delivering an experience that's good for the customer," Hieggelke said. "Customers like promotions and offers when they're relevant."

So far, iBeacon deployment has been sparse. Major League Baseball is working on trials, and has hooked up New York's Citi Field Stadium with various iBeacons, triggering welcome messages, links to landmarks, and promotional offers at its souvenir shops.

Startup InMarket has begun rolling out iBeacons throughout more than 150 grocery stores in the US.

With Urban Airship's new platform, retailers and marketers can tailor their push notifications to certain audiences, and not just broadcast a single message to everyone who has the app.

For instance, a developer or media company can set it so that anyone who has recently downloaded the app will get a welcome message and follow-up notifications highlighting the different features of the app. Or if a person hasn't the app for more than two weeks, a notification can be sent alerting them of a new feature or promotion. Or, follow-up notifications can be tailored based on someone's response to an initial alert.

The usefulness jumps when linked to iBeacon. Urban Airship is working on a way to detect interest by location. If, for example, a person lingers around the women's shoe section of a department store for more than 3 minutes, the system would note the person's interest in the area and know to offer up promotions later on.

"Right now, there's no way to detect people who are interested in something but don't end up buying anything," Hieggelke said. "The ability to collect this information and use it is a marketer's dream."

A greeting from the iBeacon system at Citi Field. Roger Cheng/CNET

Urban Airship is working on ways to verify interest based on location, so it doesn't accidentally send someone who happened to stop at the women's shoes section by chance a coupon, he said.

A lot of retailers are taking a closer look at how to augment their shopping experiences. Walmart, for instance, has done a lot of work with its app and location-sensing technology to create a more custom feel for shoppers already in the store. Macy's last year hired a "chief omnichannel officer" to oversee the integration of its store with mobile and online operations.

Urban Airship is hoping to entice its customers into trying out iBeacon, and plans to send out 3D-printed model airships containing iBeacon modules for companies interested in testing out the technology.

One of the first deployments of Urban Airship's notification-powered iBeacon system will be at the Cheltenham Festival in the UK. The organizers plan to place iBeacons near the racecourse and throughout Cheltenham to trigger alerts and "engagement experiences," according to Alex Rutehrford, head of mobile sportsbook for William Hill Plc. Tech and cultural conference SXSW in Austin will also use iBeacons next month.

Broader deployment will take time, Hieggeke acknowledged, but noted that he is optimistic.

"They're all aware of it, but there's still this learning curve," he said.