beacons in restaurants FEATURE
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A small, but growing, number of restaurants are testing out beacons to boost customer engagement and gain useful insights.

If you enter your local pub and the background music is your favorite song, it might not be a coincidence. There could be a beacon behind it all.  

That's because Rockbot, a startup music platform for businesses, is partnering with restaurants and other places to use beacons in and around the establishments, the better to create a more-engaging experience for customers. Thus, when you enter a participating  eatery, the devices sense when you're near the premises by detecting a smartphone app, then greet you and add your favorite tunes to the restaurant's playlist. "We call it smart music," says Jon Cassell, vice president of business development.

See also: Stores try on beacons

It's all about using beacons in restaurants, something a small, but growing, number of establishments are slowly testing out. Certainly, they're not as prevalent as they are in, say, retail. Of the 1 million beacons in U.S. retailers, for example, "Only a small subset is made up of restaurants," says Thomas Walle Jensen, co-founder and CEO of Unacast, which has a platform for aggregating proximity data. Still, more food and dining establishments are trying them out. Of about 350 beacon suppliers, 52% were selling to restaurants in the third quarter of 2016 compared to 35% in the third quarter of 2015, according to Jensen.

350 Beacon Suppliers

2016, 3rd Quarter Sales

52% of Restaurants Sales

2015, 3rd Quarter Sales

35% of Restaurants Sales

Such large, quick service chains and franchises as Subway, McDonald's, Ruby Tuesday, and Pizza Hut have been leading the way, according to Matthew Davis, vice president of marketing at Reveal Mobile.

Beacons rely on a phone's Bluetooth capability to send information to a mobile app that a customer has already downloaded. Once the customer opts-in, the app can pick up the beacon's signal and receive messages. With that in mind, restaurants are using beacons to push out promotions to consumers, along with other customer-engagement strategies. As important, because beacons can be placed in close proximity to diners, the technology is able to supply dining establishments with enlightening insights into patrons' habits. "The more beacons you deploy, the more audience data you capture and the more accurate it is," says Davis.

Engaging customers

Real-time customer engagement is a particularly important focus for beacons in restaurants. For one thing, they can use the technology to create new loyalty programs.

Take Stealz. It has a customer loyalty app that takes advantage of beacons' unique detection capabilities, rewarding customers for checking in and sharing photos on social media, following the business on Twitter and leaving feedback after their visits. Patrons receive points which they can cash in for rewards created by the particular establishment. "It's a customized welcome message, which is something that's hugely important for restaurants," says Jody Cumberpatch, director of marketing and content at Stealz.

"The more beacons you deploy, the more audience data you capture and the more accurate it is"Beacons also can alert patrons and passersby to special offers and deals. Consider a recent promotion run by a McDonald's franchise owner and Stealz to drive customer traffic. The restaurant launched an email campaign to promote a Valentine's Day deal, according to Cumberpatch. Customers visiting the establishment then received a customized message transmitted by beacons. According to Cumberpatch, the restaurant targeted over 2,500 patrons through the email campaign, which had a 21% open rate. Twenty-seven percent of those consumers visited the restaurant to redeem their reward, she says. 

Similarly, in some cases, customers can bookmark their favorite dishes on an appropriate app. When they pass the restaurant, they get a notification about special offers including that food.

Restaurants lacking their own apps can partner with other platforms. Case in point: Rockbot. As patrons enter restaurants partnering with Rockbot, they receive a greeting and a notification that they're going to hear a preferred tune; selections must fit certain parameters, such as the type of music the brand generally plays. The result is a better customer experience, says Cassell.     

Data collection and analysis

There also is a behind-the-scenes benefit to beacons: the access they can provide restaurants to customer data, feedback and analytics. For starters, they can be used to encourage customers to fill out online surveys, since patrons tend not to complete such questionnaires once they leave a restaurant. To encourage participation, beacons can transmit real-time reminders to post comments.

See also: Connected toys proving to be a rapidly growing field 

As important, they can collect real-time data for further analysis—anything from how many people ate at a restaurant on a particular day to the amount of time they spent there.

Stealz, for example, collects data, including customer feedback, and displays it on a dashboard for further analysis. "When beacons deliver messages, they also gather valuable information about customers," says Cumberpatch.  

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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.