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5 ways the Physical Web can help your store

Consider a technology that lets you 'walk up and use anything'. It doesn’t sound particularly novel at first (after all, you can already walk up and use pretty much most things).

But what Google is aiming to do with the Physical Web and Eddystone, its new open source standard for beacons, is much more interesting. Put simply, the Physical Web allows you to interact with real-world objects using your smartphone, tablet or a similar device, without the need to download a native app.

It works like this: a Bluetooth beacon transmits a web address (URL), which can be picked up by any Physical Web enabled device within range. Since the URL can contain information about the beacon that transmitted it, you can show the user a specific web page tailored to that location. Sharing URLs in this fashion is not too dissimilar to sticking a QR code on the wall, except that there is no need to scan anything – the phone automatically hears the broadcast and you just tap the notification on your phone.

We’re already seeing some exciting applications of this: a bus stop can tell you when the next bus is coming, a vending machine can show you where to pay online, and a movie poster can say where the nearest viewing is. All of this by telling your phone what URL you should visit to get that information.

This particular format of transmitting URLs via Bluetooth is achieved through Google’s Eddystone-URL protocol specification. This is different from Apple’s iBeacons format, which transmits a unique identifier that would have to be processed by a native app. The key benefit is that the Physical Web is open source, meaning it is neither specific to any vendor nor stuck within a 'walled garden'. The main limitation, however, is that users still have to proactively click the link for any interaction to occur.

So what does this actually mean for customers and retailers? Here’s five ways in which this simple, elegant concept can improve customer experience for the good of the customer and benefit the retailer’s bottom line:

Bridging online and offline

The brick and mortar shop offers an experience you simply cannot replicate online. You can touch, feel, taste, and try on goods. But sometimes you want some of the benefits of the online experience – you want a bigger product range, to know what the stock levels are, what reviews the product is getting or you want something delivered so you don’t have to carry it home.

Using the Physical Web, you can get an online store link tailored to the products right in front of you. You don’t need to search for information on the item in the online store or the wider Internet – it’s there in one click. And from the retailer’s perspective, you can tie that offline sale to the online data you have. This gives you further insight into online and offline shopping habits, helping you to improve the customer experience even further.

No more 'excuse me, do you work here?' moments

The shopping experience ought to be as enjoyable as possible. In an ideal world, customers shouldn’t have to search around the store for someone to help them.

Now imagine if there was an online customer service platform with an FAQ, live chat, a store map, and other customer service information that people can access on their phones. And by tapping a button, you could alert staff to your approximate location (by seeing which beacon URL you used) and get them to find you.

With beacons, the URL to this platform can be broadcast to every customer, making access to this information seamless.

The end of queuing?

Physical Web URLs can link to an online payment screen on your website. Using this, you could simply tap a link, enter their credit card details (or tap Apple Pay or an equivalent) and pay for a physical item via your mobile from wherever you are in the store.

We’re unlikely to see this used for expensive items, however, because of security concerns. And if you wanted to pay for your weekly groceries this way, you would need to use additional technology to tally up your items. But for simple, low-cost transactions, we can imagine some clever uses for this. We can picture customers using their phones to pay for a coffee from the shop café while they are still shopping. Or they could top up the meter in the car park. If it takes away the inconvenience of queuing, the Physical Web could make purchasing these sorts of items much easier.

Finding those elusive niche stores

When you’re somewhere new, perhaps on holiday, it’s easy to be at a loss. Whilst big supermarkets and high street brands are easy to find, niche or specialist stores can be harder to track down. Perhaps you’re looking for a ukulele shop or a saddlers.
In a world where beacons are widely used, search engine technology is likely to be used to help you filter the results and determine which are most suited to you. This gives that niche shop, which perfectly matches your tastes, a chance to reach out to you. By broadcasting its URL over a wide area, the store can put itself in your Physical Web results page. And the URL itself could open up the native Maps app and point at its location (along with a short description), leading you to its front door.

You don’t need another app

On average, in the US, 65.5 per cent of smartphone users install zero apps per month. This is the clearest sign you can get that customers won’t download apps indiscriminately. Having to download an app (sometimes when there is no WiFi available), install it, fill in a sign up form (in some cases), and remember that you have it is too much for a customer to do so for every store they visit. And from a retailer’s perspective, building an app is expensive. You have to spend money hiring developers to build it, design for different screens and platforms, maintain security, keep it updated, and get customers to download it.

Currently, in order for Physical Web beacons to work, iOS and Android users need to have the Chrome browser app installed. One assumes this is an interim move by Google to sneak Physical Web compatibility onto operating systems until this functionality becomes part of the core OS. Eventually there won’t be a need for customers to download an app, or a need for any additional proprietary tech or infrastructure for the retailer.

For retailers, the Physical Web offers the opportunity to bring online experiences to the offline world easily and cost-effectively. While it may be some time before it becomes commonplace, the Physical Web is a technology worth paying attention to.

Robert McFarlane, head of labs at Head