Rite Aid is revamping its mobile app (which the pharmacy chain sees as key to developing stronger one-to-one relationships with its shoppers) as part of a plan that includes one of the most extensive beacon rollouts to date.

As of last fall, Rite Aid had beacons installed at all its 4,600 U.S. stores, said Gerard Babitts, the chain’s senior director of digital marketing, during a panel session at Toshiba’s RISE (Retail Innovation & Shopper Expertise Symposium).

The installs occurred before larger rival Walgreens made its $17.2 billion merger offer to Rite Aid, which would result in a combined 13,000 U.S. stores, making it much larger than rival CVS, which has 7,800 stores. The Walgreens deal promised to keep the Rite Aid brand separate and is unlikely to mean a combined beacon deployment, at least for now.

The number of Rite Aid stores using beacons would appear to be larger than any other retailer in the past year.

To put that in context, other noteworthy beacon implementations include Macy’s work with Shopkick to place 4,000 Bluetooth-powered devices in all its 850 stores; Target has connected Estimote’s beacon system to its branded iPhone app at its 1,800 U.S. outlets; and Lord & Taylor put Swirl Network’s beacons in all 50 if its stores ahead of Black Friday 2014.

Educating Consumers On Benefits, Not Tech

In a conversation with GeoMarketing following the session, Babitts said that proximity platform inMarket was running the beacon installation program. (inMarket execs declined to comment.) It’s worth pointing out that inMarket’s beacon platform reaches a comScore-verified 38 million monthly shoppers in thousands of U.S. retail locations.

“It’s very early days for us in terms of the beacon activation, so we haven’t gotten down to the store level,” Babitts said during the Q&A portion of the panel.

“It’s still run centrally. Once we do activate the beacons, we’ll incorporate related messaging into our app. Just by virtue of what we intend to do, we’ll create a large marketing campaign to increase app usage and app downloads and turn on notifications.”

As a group, the majority of Rite Aid customers tend to skew older than Millennials who tend to be more open to Internet of Things devices like beacons. In terms of education, while most consumers remain unfamiliar with beacons over two years after they hit the marketplace, Babitts said that educating consumers about these tools will not come from a technical perspective.

Toshiba's RISE panel on health/wellness and engagement.
Toshiba’s RISE panel on health/wellness and engagement.

Instead, Rite Aid will focus on highlighting the content and offers that consumers can access through its app and the opening up of their phones’ Bluetooth receivers.

“Ultimately, the message we have to give people is that there is a benefit from using the app and receiving beacon-triggered messages; we’re not looking to sell them things,” Babitts noted. “That said, we’re focused on targeted advertising and targeted offers to people as part of our loyalty programs. So our ability to message people as they walk through the store is a real benefit for our shoppers.”

“It’s not necessarily about teaching the consumer what a beacon is or what the technology is,” added the panel moderator Kevin Hunter, president of inMarket. “It’s about the engagement that happens. And that engagement happens through natural interest that’s driven by native content. When it doesn’t have that component, that’s when the engagement fails. The consumer has to welcome the content and messaging that happens to be delivered by the technology.”

Another RISE panelist, Kerry Lyons, SVP for marketing at social marketing platform House Party, added that a successful beacon rollout depends on ensuring brand trust and recognizing the role that plays as technology becomes a larger part of consumers lives.

“Technology has to deliver on the brand promise — and that promise has to be delivered authentically and relevantly,” Lyons said. “That’s always the main thing in determining how beacons are used, not whether people understand the underlying technology.”

The Reason For Beacons

Rite Aid’s beacon strategy is meant to reflect its wider use case for its apps. As Babitts sees it, Rite Aid’s apps aren’t just competing with rival pharmacy brands for consumers’ interaction and attention; they’re competing against the likes of The Weather Channel.

“My perception is that we only have so much room for apps on our phones,” Babitts told GeoMarketing following the panel session. “We don’t differentiate between certain apps that offer a poor experience, but [try to entrice usage with discounts]. We look to beautiful experiences, whether it’s Uber or The Weather Channel. You can rattle off your own personal favorites. The point is, that’s what we see ourselves competing against; it’s not just other pharmacy brands or just in the health/wellness category.

“I can be very important to my customer if I offer a great experience,” he added. “If I don’t offer an attractive experience, it doesn’t matter that we’re a great brand in general. That identity has to translate well to the consumer. Our app strategy is based on offering solutions, services, and content based on what kind of customer they are.”

While it seems that many brands are jumping on the beacon bandwagon, Babitts said that Rite Aid is being very deliberate about why and how it rolls out its proximity program.

“We just see a great upside in using beacons to enrich the one-to-one experience with our customers. And if they’re in our stores, our customers don’t browse: they are very purposeful about what they want. The dwell time isn’t that great and it’s not the point. When someone is in our store, we want to make it as great an experience as possible, which means getting them directly what they want as quickly as possible. Beacons can help us do that.”