Bluetooth Low Energy and near-field communication are both tools retailers use to improve the customer experience, but they operate differently. Each offers its own opportunities and features. Retailers should remember, too, that BLE and NFC are not mutually exclusive; they can be used to support one another in a more comprehensive retail strategy.
How the customer interacts
In the BLE model, customers must have their store apps open while shopping in order to detect BLE signals (iOS 7 devices use iBeacon protocols, so they will automatically launch apps for their users). Once a smartphone detects a BLE signal being broadcast from a nearby beacon, the app will analyze that signal and take a prescribed action according to the signal’s unique identifiers.
As a result, the customer experiences push notifications based on his or her location within the store (i.e. what beacons are in his or her vicinity) and responds to the notifications. BLE allows a more passive relationship between the customer and the app, as notifications are only indirectly solicited and will “follow” the customer around the store; different areas may trigger different notifications depending on the app’s settings.
In the NFC model, customers must have their store apps open while shopping in order to interact with NFC transceivers. Once a smartphone exchanges signals with another NFC device, the app will take a prescribed action according to its exchange.
As a result, the customer experiences notifications only when he or she engages an NFC device. NFC allows a more active relationship between the customer and the app, as notifications are only generated when the customer wants them to be.
What the technology excels in
BLE is excellent for sending customers reminders and alerts because it has a more passive approach. The customer doesn’t need to actively engage any elements besides the notifications on the phone. For this reason, it is also better for maintaining the flow of the consumer’s shopping experience; new alerts will be pushed to those individuals when they arrive or loiter in various areas throughout the store.
Because NFC has a very short range, it is a better choice for secure interactions like contactless payments. There’s less chance of the transaction being intercepted. NFC is also good for actively engaging customers in certain activities, such as entering into a prize drawing or claiming a reward in a gamified environment.
Despite these differences, NFC and BLE do share many applications. The apps that support them can be programmed to deliver the same context-sensitive messages, regardless of whether those messages are delivered passively (BLE) or actively (NFC). Additionally, the apps can be designed to support the same additional features, such as store account log-in, online shopping carts, wishlists, and purchase histories.
NFC and BLE can complement one another as part of the same app as well. Because they have different strengths, they can round out an app’s capabilities. A joint application would also allow users to select what kind of experience (active or passive) they want if the store uses both NFC and BLE in the same ways.
Retail groups may find joint BLE/NFC apps to be particularly useful because they allow individual stores within the groups to use their preference of BLE and NFC communications to engage the customer.