Store mannequins can now beacon passing smartphones

For the first time, store mannequins are being embedded with Bluetooth beaconing chips. And it’s cross-platform.

beacon lead image

Here’s a scenario: You’re zig-zagging through your neighborhood department store and a touch of schmutter on one of the mannequins catches your eye. One glance at your phone, and sizes in-stock, colors, and other data spew forth like an ecommerce website gone mad.

Well, elements of that are now here. Three popular retailers in the UK have just installed the technology, called VMBeacon, from company Iconeme.

Ostensibly, the idea is that customers can receive information on their phones about clothing that they’re nearby, via Bluetooth.

But also, obviously, it lets vendors engage with greenback-toting customers, who are in a buying mood on the floor.


Apple recently pitched the idea, with a technology called iBeacon for iOS 7. iBeacons, as with Iconeme’s product, uses Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE radio, to send messages to devices when the device user is nearby. Stores can use iBeacons to send discounts, or links to websites, for example.

Beacon technology is sometimes used to pump limited-time offers to passers-by, like movie tickets.

The problem with Apple’s iBeacon is that it’s part of the iOS walled-garden, and thus can't be used on Android devices. Iconeme’s technology is, and apps are available for both iOS and Android.

How VMBeacon works

Customers download free apps for Android or iOS. When that customer gets within about 50 yards of the chip-embedded mannequin, the customer receives an alert alerting them of available propaganda related to the mannequin-adorned garb.

The app then advises the price, links to the item at the store’s website, and tells where in the store the item is located — for example, the shoe department on the second floor.

Detailed photos are delivered, and users can share them on social networks.

A benefit, too, is that you can window shop when the store is closed, and purchase the item without having to cross the threshold.

The app, as it is now, doesn't provide brick-and-mortar in-stock details — a possible trip-up.


Hindrances to adoption are that an app needs to be pre-meditated, downloaded, and installed. A tedious process. But Iconeme’s solution does include incorporating point-of-sale discounts, so that could help motivate.

I could see the functionality ultimately being incorporated into a brick-and-mortar store’s ecommerce app, rather than the beacon-provider’s proprietary app, as is the case currently.

If that were implemented, I also see it helping to thwart showrooming. Showrooming is the practice by which customers view products in a brick-and-mortar environment, price-compare, and then buy online — not necessarily at the vendor where they physically perused the items.

But just how useful is it?

We can guess that stores will like it because of its on-site customer interaction features alone.

But what about the mall rat?

I asked a friend who regularly shops at department stores whether she thought this kind of technology would come in handy at the consumer level.

She said that care instructions and maker blurb were always on the garment tag, and that price and available clothing sizes was usually on a placard displayed adjacent to the mannequin. So she saw limited usefulness in reiterating that on her phone.

However, what she did say in favor of the idea was that anything that could speed up in-stock search was a good thing.

She said that even when the sales clerks carried mobile devices and were able to look the item up remotely, away from the busy point-of-sale station, it still took forever. She recounted one event when she walked out of a store because of the slowness of the clerk’s mobile look-up.

So, automatic stock look-up, prompted by mannequin proximity, would be a good thing—if it were indeed implemented down the road.

One killer feature that my friend would like to see, and it too is not in the spec, is a beaconing function that allows her to visualize her actual size in the garments. In other words, she’d like to punch in dimensions, and have the app create a 3-D form on the phone, with the mannequin’s garment imposed three-dimensionally.

She says that the mannequin-wearing garment in-store is always a size zero, and consequently an unrealistic representation for most when eyeballing. And the deal-breaker is always the hassle of a fitting room.

So, Iconeme, there’s a bit of app development for you, if you’re interested.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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