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Mister Beacon Episode #82

Wayfinding in The Mall of America

December 04, 2018

There doesn’t seem like a more perfect use of wayfinding services using Bluetooth beacons than in the largest shopping and entertainment complex in the United States – Mall of America. Janette Smrcka, Information Technology Director at Mall of America, took on the challenge of enabling users to locate and navigate effectively across 520 stores on 5 levels, spanning 4.3 miles, over 5.6 million square feet. In this Episode of Mr. Beacon, we talk with Janette about what beacons and “blue dot” provider they are using, why they are using beacons over Wi-Fi, and how they deal with scaling in such a complex and large structure. We even get the inside scoop of where she sees the technology adding more value in the future.


  • Narration 0:07

    The Mr. Beacon podcast is sponsored by Wiliot scaling IoT with battery free Bluetooth.

    Steve Statler 0:16

    Welcome to the Mr. Beacon podcast. We're here at Bluetooth world. And we've just stepped out of the main keynote Auditorium, where we've been listening to Janette, who's an IT director at Mall of America talk about their deployment of Bluetooth beacons. She got more questions than anyone's ever got the Bluetooth special interest group conference. So, Jake, thanks for spending a few minutes with us to talk about what you've been doing.

    Janette Smrcka 0:45


    Steve Statler 0:46

    So tell us what you're using Bluetooth beacons for at the mall.

    Janette Smrcka 0:51

    So primarily right now we're using beacons as a way to provide guest Wayfinding. So back in 2015, we went about trying to figure out how we could help guests navigate the space, we have 40 million visitors to the property each year, the facility is 5.6 million square feet, 4.3 miles of storefront. A lot of interesting things to see. But you have to know where you're going. And so we put the system in place, and it took a while to get right. But we think now we've got an experience that's very similar to what guests experience on their mobile devices when they're doing other mapping platforms today.

    Steve Statler 1:28

    Very good. And just in case, there's any doubt where is Mall of America in the ranking of largest shopping malls?

    Janette Smrcka 1:35

    We are the largest shopping and entertainment complex in North America.

    Steve Statler 1:39

    Fantastic. So the United States,

    Janette Smrcka 1:42

    Sorry, West Edmonton Mall,

    Steve Statler 1:44

    Finding your way around is potentially a bit of a challenge. And so can you tell us a little bit about the technology that's behind this service? So it's live? Now people can use it right?

    Janette Smrcka 1:55

    Absolutely. All you need to do is download the Mall of America app. And obviously, we encourage you to join our Wi Fi, you certainly need to have Bluetooth turned on. And then it's able to pinpoint your location. And then you can select any destination. So we've got 520 tenants to choose from. And then it will provide you with step by step directions to get from where you are to that tenant location.

    Steve Statler 2:19

    So you've basically got a dot, what color blue dot dot experience, and you're getting people from where they are to where they want to. And it's kind of the mapping metaphor that people are very used to. So what what beacons did you go is what what product?

    Janette Smrcka 2:39

    Absolutely, we're using the Cisco Halo beacons. And that's been really good for us for a couple of reasons. One is we're able to centrally configure those. So we actually tested a couple of blue dot providers in the early stages to find who could provide that True Blue Dot experience. And we ended up going with Stanyan for the the blue dot provider. And the additional benefit of these Halo beacons, they plug into our wireless access points. And so we don't need to worry about power. We've got a lot of friends in the stadium industry who deployed battery beacons, which worked great for the first season, and then not and so the cost of replacing those beacons is not in the actual beacons themselves. But it's labor with a scale of facilities like ours. And it's even more complex for a property like Mall of America. We don't have an offseason. So everything has to be done after hours.

    Steve Statler 3:28

    So the halo product that supports Wi Fi location as well as Bluetooth, is that correct? That is correct. Yes. And you went for Bluetooth, what was that?

    Janette Smrcka 3:38

    We initially tried to do with Wi Fi alone. But we found that phones make bad choices at times. And so the Yes, yes. Especially especially like teenagers, yes, we, we found that the Wi Fi can really detect where you are if you're not moving. But as you walk through the property, Wi Fi has a difficult time, particularly with the phones in, you know, keeping track of which access point you should be connected to. Sometimes the phones can be a little sticky, and they'll hold on to a poor signal too long. So obviously, the signal degrades, but then it also skews the triangulation.

    Steve Statler 4:13

    That totally makes sense, because really Wi Fi is primary role is connectivity and beacons were built for the location and precision, right? You mentioned that you need to have Wi Fi turned on and Bluetooth Bluetooth turned on which I think a lot of the viewers of this podcast would know but maybe the users of the app wouldn't know. What do you have a sense for how much of an issue that is what percentage of people have got those radios turned on versus not?

    Janette Smrcka 4:44

    You know, we don't really know for sure how many have been turned off. The app obviously tells them if they would like to leverage the location services that they need to turn on their Bluetooth. But they can certainly also just use the app as a map and that can provide them with some content extra information, you can select a starting location and location. But obviously the more enhanced experience is with the beacon enabled, I think there's less of a challenge with getting people to turn on their Bluetooth than there is getting people to download one more mobile app.

    Steve Statler 5:15

    Yes. How do you get them to do that?

    Janette Smrcka 5:19

    You know, right now, the primarily benefit is is Wayfinding. But we are looking at really tying this to new loyalty program that we hope to launch next year. And, you know, similar to other venues, right, you have to find a good hook, what's going to provide enough benefit to the guests that it's worth it for them to have one more app on their phone, and it might be different for different guests. So right now, I think, you know, if you're a traveler, perhaps that's incentive enough that wayfinding will provide you enough benefit to download the app, that's great, you use it like you would at a conference, and then you then you take it off. But for the guests that we have that are in the area or come to them all regularly, we need to provide something more beneficial for them than Wayfinding. Alone.

    Steve Statler 5:59

    What was the business driver to this, I can see from a guest point of view, totally made sense. I want to find one of the 500 Plus stores. But was it difficult to get support for the investment you had to put into this? And how did you how did you justify putting the time and effort into creating this app,

    Janette Smrcka 6:19

    I think that everyone understood what was needed and why it was needed. We are extremely focused on the guest experience at Mall of America, everything that we do is curated and intended to provide benefit for the guest. And we know that we find is a pain point. In addition to being a large facility, it's also a very dynamic facility, we have a lot of new stores that are opening all the time, and there's just no way to keep track of it, perhaps they're remodeling, they might be moving from one side of the property to the other, they might need to expand, we need to move them to different spots. And so just to be able to provide all of that information to our guests and be able to do it efficiently. It made sense.

    Steve Statler 6:59

    Fantastic. And so you've got the the base service there very useful. What do you see in the future? Where do you want to take this?

    Janette Smrcka 7:07

    I think that there's a lot of opportunities for enhanced experiences for the mall, to be able to take advantage of this infrastructure. So it might be something as simple as tracking the the wheelchairs and strollers that we have on the property. And, you know, we have multiple guest service desks where guests can rent those. And again, the facility is very large, right? So perhaps we're out of strollers on one side, but they've got them on the other side, we'd be able to know that right away. And we wouldn't have to call over to the other desk and say, Hey, do you have a double stroller left? So we would know that and you know, certainly make the call and hey, can you reserve that? Or can we bring that over here for this guest to be able to use? I think that there's a lot of other potential applications with IoT, as well as just providing more context for employees. So perhaps they're recording maintenance issues, and to be able to just snap with the app and let it record where you are. And you don't need to describe that information. To be able to have systematic documentation about that would certainly expedite our documentation process and obviously then resolution of any issues.

    Steve Statler 8:13

    Sounds very worthwhile. He's a wonderful insights. Congratulations on a great presentation and congratulations on delivering this value add to your your guests at the Mall of America.

    Janette Smrcka 8:25

    Thank you very much to you and to everyone watching the blog.