If you could check for available parking spaces outside your favorite restaurant, order from a menu specified to your dietary needs, and pay for your order without stepping one foot inside the door, would you do it? If you had to download the restaurant’s app and turn on your location and Bluetooth services on your mobile device, would you still do it? And what if you could do all that was mentioned above AND receive a member’s only reward, order off the secret menu, or cash in coupons on your favorite food or drink, would you do it now?

Luckily for you tech-savvy consumers, the restaurant industry is just getting started. Restaurants are now accommodating to consumers by offering mobile friendly websites, implementing mobile apps (there’s an app for that!), and investing in a simple piece of technology known as a beacon.

So, what exactly is a beacon? Does it have something to do with a lighthouse?

Close, but not quite.

In order to accurately define and describe a beacon, I combined both Business Insider and QSRWeb.com’s definitions which state that a beacon is a small and inexpensive piece of hardware that transmits a message directly to a smartphone or tablet using low-energy Bluetooth (or BLE) signals. BLE connects your phone to a small beacon, which is placed inside a restaurant or retail location (i.e. a food court or a restaurant heavy area). Once the consumer’s Bluetooth-enabled device comes within 100 – 130 feet, the two devices can now communicate.

Another type of technology that complements a beacon is geofencing, which uses GPS to determine where a user and their device is located in relation to a particular point [i.e. answering] the question, “Who is within a half mile of this restaurant?” (QSRWeb.com).

If this sounds creepy or a little too techy, read on. Geofencing and beacons can work hand-in-hand. Here’s an example: geofencing can release a coupon to a customer within the broad radius of a restaurant. Once the customer is within the beacon’s predefined radius, the beacon will now “activate” the coupon which can be used immediately. Boom! You now have a new customer.

What about consumer privacy? We have trust issues now, remember?

During the #CONNECTsummit14 discussion on how beacons offer immediacy, simplicity, and context, the panelists cautioned restaurants to “proceed with transparency” as they implement beacons into their locations. It is important for a customer to know what sort of data the restaurant is collecting and how the restaurant plans on using that data. Jordan McKee, analyst for 451 Research/Yankee Group, suggested that restaurants “should communicate [this] clearly and concisely.”

With the increasing number of data breaches this past year, customers are finding it harder to trust any industry in which they spend their hard-earned money. McKee mentions, “It all comes down to trust. It takes decades to build, but you can literally destroy it in an instant.” Restaurants need to prioritize transparency, but should understand that consumers may simply refuse to interact.

Basically, as a consumer, I want to know that the data a restaurant is capturing is being used for restaurant quality purposes and not for a restaurant to know that I buy three scoops (instead of my usual two) of chocolate gelato during specific times of the calendar year. There’s a fine line between helpful and creepy.

Is privacy designed with, me, the consumer in mind?

According to QSRWeb.com, beacons can only be activated once the customer “opts-in” and gives the beacon permission to know and use their location.  In some cases, a customer must download and allow push notifications for a specific restaurant’s app in order to activate and communicate with that restaurant’s beacon.

And if a customer has already given the beacon permission, but for some reason doesn’t want to be “bothered” on a particular day (usually the one day I’m ordering three scoops instead of two), the customer just has to disable their device’s Bluetooth and location services. It’s just that easy.

What are the benefits to consumers?

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) states that “11% of all adults use their smartphone to use rewards or special deals at least once per week” and continue to use their mobile devices to order delivery, look up location information, and even pay for the order. Beacons can facilitate all that and more:

  • Offer last minute deals or “flash sales”
  • Release secret insider menus
  • Provide access to dietary restricted and allergen menus and child-friendly choices
  • Post basic restaurant information such as address, contact information, and directions
  • Advertise new products
  • Show available parking, valet, wait times, and open tables
  • Add customers to waitlists without interacting with the host staff
  • Contact a consumer when their table is available
  • Set music preferences at the restaurant table itself
  • Point out wine and food pairings, recipes, or chef biographies

A consumer can even order as they are walking in – known as geotriggered ordering. A consumer can walk in the door, or a set radius, and order from their mobile device. The consumer’s order is then sent straight to the kitchen and immediately a confirmation will pop up. The consumer can now pay for their order and pick it up without having to stand in line or interact with a single person. (Again, this is a great idea for my three scoop chocolate gelato days!) All in all, beacons reduce wait times, increase throughput, and ultimately make life a little easier.

So, how do restaurants benefit from beacon technology?

According to Anke Corbin, Senior VP of Splick.it, a restaurant “will need to have [its] own app with beacon-enabled software and an established customer base that opts into location services and relevant messages.” After that, QSRWeb.com suggested that the initial cost for beacon hardware can run $25 – $45 and the analytics and performance software can run a monthly fee of minimally $25.

Don’t be discouraged by the initial technological leap, Hospitality Technology Magazine found that 71% of restaurant respondents had a mobile web presence and 35% had a mobile application already, so that leaves only one more step! With beacon technology, a restaurant can now offer a multitude of information to its customers:

  • Provide in-restaurant information
  • Market coupons, discounts, and  special offers
  • Expedite the payment process by implementing mobile payment (keeping up with Apple Pay)
  • Offer customer service/customer support almost immediately
  • Generate exit surveys for quick customer feedback

A restaurant can even collect helpful data from beacons:

  • How much time is spent at certain places within a retail store
  • What time of day is a particular customer visiting a location
  • What’s the frequency a customer is visiting said location
  • What is purchased, when, and how much
  • How many people are walking away from a line and did they go to a competitor