Is There Too Much Hype Around Beacons? Shelfbucks’ CEO Calls Bull On Bluetooth Devices

The sensor is not the solution, says Shelfbucks’ Erik McMillan, calling beacons ‘bullsh*t.’

In a conversation with tech investor and BazaarVoice founder Brett Hurt at the conclusion of this past week’s LBMA RetailLoco at SxSW event, Shelfbucks CEO Erik McMillan offered a provocative statement to the proximity specialists in the room: He’s sick of hearing how “big beacons” are becoming. In essence, his view: “Beacons are bullsh*t.” We asked him to elaborate.

GeoMarketing: What’s the problem you see with beacons?

Erik McMillan: It’s just a false hope that you can talk about a technology that will solve all your problems, right? That would be like a hammer is going to build me a house or a bullet is going to win the war.

A beacon’s not going to do anything for you, it’s a means to an end.

It’s a tool.

Yes, it’s a tool. Everybody talks about the tool like it’s the winner. It’s like, “Beacons are going to do this” and “Beacons are going to change the game.”

No, guess what? Beacons aren’t going to do anything. You, as a smart retailer and a smart brand are going to leverage new tools and technologies to try to improve shopper experience and get more data to fight in this new e-commerce world.

I know of retailers that have installed beacons in all their stores and they don’t know what they’re going to do with them.

Doesn’t Shelfbucks use beacons?

Shelfbucks uses sensors — and we don’t sell sensors. We sell data, access to data, access to shopper experience. That’s what we do. We use technology inside of marketing displays for brands and retailers. We don’t sell beacons. We don’t have beacons.

Well, a beacon is a sensor, of course. Do you feel that that beacons aren’t adequate as sensors? Or is it just that the industry conversion is too focused on hardware and software as opposed how to actually use them to further proximity marketing programs?

First of all a beacon isn’t really anything. It was a made up word by Apple, an iBeacon right? A sensor is much more broad. A sensor can be anything to solve a problem or drive a solution.

In our case, we need to be able to communicate long-range, so we have long-range radio. We have infrared. We have temperature. We have all kinds of sensors embedded. We have Bluetooth Low Energy BOE 4.0 and, yes, we sometimes use iBeacon to do some things for our clients.

But really what we’re trying to do is help a brand or retailer understand if their merchandising is in the store or not, how many mobile shoppers are coming up their display. From there, we’ll enable them to communicate with a shopper standing in front of their products. We’re trying to drive shopper trips, loyalty, and bigger basket size. Those are the things we’re trying to do. The technology or platform is not where we’re focused.

What do you want to hear from the proximity marketing industry?

If you talked to a retailer about a beacon, unless you’re talking to the IT department or the e-commerce department, they’ll just laugh you out of the room. You got to talk to them about what’s going to drive sales, category sales, gross margin. How do you get to achieve bigger profitability in a category? That’s what you need to talk about.

But don’t even retailers, who are first and foremost all about running their hardware store, pharmacy, or restaurant, need to know about new technologies that might change the way to access data from companies in the space?

The key is, to solve a problem and add value. Solve a problem and add value. Whether you use a beacon, or a hammer, or a sensor, or a Sysco router, or an Aruba whatchamacallit, it is what are you going to do to change the name of the game? What are you going to do change the game? If you go out talking about the technology, it’s like you are naked without an answer. “Hey, I got beacons!” And my response is, “Okay, now what?”

So don’t come up to you at an industry conference and ask you what you think of beacons. Is that it?

Beacons are bullshit.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.