In-store product locator systems - everything you need to know

As we’ve covered many times on the Pointr blog, the world is constantly having its expectations for what technology can do reset and raised by what’s already out there. Nowhere is this truer than in navigation. 20 years ago, GPS devices weren’t yet at widespread adoption due to cost; more people used old fashioned paper road maps to get around. Nowadays, dedicated GPS units have come and gone, replaced by integrated in-car devices, or, more commonly, by smartphones using apps such as Google Maps. We’ve gone from having to set time aside to plan a route and a need to memorize locations and road names, to expecting to have an entire planet’s worth of navigation options in the palm of our hands, available at the touch of a button, within two decades.

While we’ve not quite got the same expectations for indoor navigation as we do for outdoor environments, they’re rapidly converging. Indoor maps are becoming increasingly common for locations such as airports, hospitals, big box retailers and more. Businesses are recognizing that customers value convenience and equate it with an outstanding customer experience. In days gone by, retailers may have attempted to trap customers in confusing, maze-like stores in order to encourage them to add more products to their baskets. This sometimes worked, but left a sour taste in the mouth for customers who were less likely to return as a result. Nowadays, businesses know that offering customers straightforward, smooth experiences is the best way to encourage repeat visits and purchases. Indoor maps are a great starting point on the journey to great customer experience.

But what should come next? Well, if the aim is to help customers have a streamlined experience, then helping to guide them to exactly what they arrived at the store looking for would be an ideal direction to go. That’s where product locator systems come in.

What are product locator systems?

Product locator systems are being rapidly adopted by many of the world’s major retailers, including Ikea, Walmart and Home Depot. How comprehensive these systems are varies enormously from retailer to retailer.

Some product locator systems may be no more complex than giving the user an approximate location (for example, a search for ‘towels’ on an app, website or ios could result in being told they’re located within the bathroom department), or it could be a fully-fledged indoor map and navigation system that not only tells a user where the product is, but can then guide them to the product via an in-app interface (aka a Store Mode). This latter example would require product locations being mapped within a store, and an indoor location system being enabled to pick up the user’s location and guide them to the product. We’ve covered how retailers are achieving this via beacon-based product locator systems in the next section.

What are beacon-based product locator systems?

When a product locator system is described as being beacon-based, it means that the system is built upon a foundation of beacon technology.

Beacons are small devices, normally fixed to a ceiling or embedded within other pieces of hardware, such as WiFi access points or smart lighting fixtures. Beacons tend to have a range around 30 meters, meaning a comprehensive topography of beacons needs to be installed within an indoor location in order to obtain a strong enough group of signals to establish accurate indoor positioning data. Beacons communicate using a variety of different protocols, most notably Bluetooth Low Energy, and are constantly beaming out a signal which can then be picked up by devices that also use the beacon’s protocol (i.e. smartphones with Bluetooth). 

Between the beacons and the device they’re communicating with, location can be established and, via an interface such as a mobile app, the distance between the user and their desired product can be established and a route displayed to show them how to get to their product.

App-based versus kiosk-based product locator systems - what’s the difference?

Two common types of product locator systems you’ll regularly encounter if researching systems are app-based and kiosk-based. What are the differences?

App-based systems use a smartphone app as their primary way of displaying information to users. This means end users (consumers) will have an app on their phone, and will use that to find information about products, including the location of said product. If the app operates within an indoor positioning ecosystem, the app may be able to combine the product location information with indoor maps and navigation, literally leading the customer to the product.

A kiosk-based system offers the same basic functionality, but does so from a fixed kiosk or screen within the store. This may still offer users navigation direct to the product, but can do so with a less comprehensive indoor navigation system, due to the fact that the kiosk will be in a fixed position and therefore won’t require an active calculation - everything can be calculated via a fixed indoor map.

Of course, many retailers may offer both app-based and kiosk-based options to users - in such cases, it’s safe to assume that the system is primarily app-based, due to the additional functionality required by an app-based solution compared to a kiosk-based one.

What are the advantages of product locator systems?

As we’ve seen, product locator systems are growing in adoption and complexity, and user expectations are growing along with that adoption rate. This isn’t a huge surprise, given the numerous advantages of product locator systems:

Better customer experience 

At the most fundamental level, product locator systems improve customer experience and satisfaction. Gone are the days of retailers aiming to make their stores maze-like in order to trap shoppers and hope to tempt them into buying more - retailers have long realized that doing so has an enormously detrimental impact upon potential return business. Instead, retailers are now recognizing that in order to win long-term customer loyalty, they need to offer a shopping experience that helps their customers find what they need in a seamless, timely manner. Product locator systems achieve this extremely well.

Reduced pressures on staff and improves efficiency 

At some point or another, we all will have encountered this scenario: we arrive in a store, looking for a specific product, and are unable to find it. We then turn to the nearest member of staff that we can find and ask them for help locating the product. The staff member then has to leave the task they’re working on or the post they’re stationed at to lead us to the product. Not only is this a sub-optimal experience for the customer, but it means the member of staff is distracted from their designated task and can fall behind schedule. If a product locator can substitute for the staff member in this scenario, staff will be free to work on their designated tasks more quickly and with fewer interruptions, improving efficiency and, as a result, customer experience.

Improved product analytics and data intelligence 

The data associated with product locator systems can be invaluable for retailers looking to improve store layouts, enhance customer experience and identify potential areas for growth. While sales data can tell retailers a certain amount, it is limited, and product locator data can help bridge some of those gaps. For example, if a product a retailer doesn’t stock is repeatedly searched for, it could hint at an opportunity for a new product line for the retailer to invest in. Another example would be products that are commonly searched for together, suggesting they’re complementary to one another - combining this data with the average navigation distances between products could surface instances where two products should be located near one another but are currently situated in entirely different parts of the store.