Mobile Trackers at Shops and Bars Pay For Parking

Hotspot Offers a New Twist on Beacon Tech In Parking Payments

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Late night patrons at Britt's Pub and Eatery in Saint John, Canada can grab a plate of fish cakes, a pint of bitter -- and an automatic parking-meter payment for their cars the next morning. Two mobile tracking devices placed on the ceiling at the British-style tavern make it happen.

Britt's partners with Hotspot, which installs beacons in businesses that pick up on signals from phones with the Hotspot or Passport mobile parking- payment apps. The service helps businesses learn more about their patrons, though some hesitate to make marketing decisions based on what sometimes is sparse information.

The system gives Britt's and other businesses in cities with limited parking an easy way to offer customers help with parking fees, while providing merchants and restaurants with demographic data about who visits. The Hotspot and Passport apps notify users if their parking meter time is running out. If they choose, merchants can send people with the apps a notice while they're in-store that offers to refill the meter so they can stay longer.

"It's a small gesture, but we've gotten a ton of feedback that it actually has a huge effect on [clients]," said Eric Feunekes, VP-growth marketing for Hotspot Merchant Solutions. Hotspot started as a parking app that enables parking payments via mobile phones; the merchant services are a newer offering.

Passport partners with parking authorities and municipalities to facilitate the parking payments, and Hotspot's network of beacons pick up on the presence of either app when people visit shop and restaurant locations with Hotspot beacons. The technology only picks up on devices that are present inside businesses and immediately outside, to gauge the number of passersby who don't come in.

While the service seems to raise questions when it comes to drinking and driving, bars say it can be useful when people might be under the influence and better off taking a cab home than driving. Some choose to offer people the ability to leave their cars parked overnight in a paid spot and start up payment when it's time again to feed the meter in the morning. Britt's offers free parking to the first 10 people who visit the pub with the app each month.

"I see it increasing, so hopefully it catches on," said Glen Hussey, general manager of Britt's, adding that patrons often are excited to see notifications that their parking is free. Hotspot, working in conjunction with Passport, automates the payment through the city's parking meter system. If businesses don't choose to pay for patrons' parking, it's paid through the card they have connected to the apps.

Beacons are becoming ubiquitous in retail environments, with shopping center installations and mobile app networks that connect with them growing across the U.S.

Hotspot has its tracking devices set up in businesses in the Southeastern Canadian cities of Fredericton, Saint John, Moncton and Charlottetown, and recently started in its first U.S. city in Asheville, N.C. Salt Lake City, Toronto, Boston and Chicago could be future markets, according to Mr. Feunekes.

Merchants get information on who's in their establishments including their age, gender, name and photos if they have signed into the app via Facebook, depending on what data users have shared. Companies can also determine whether someone is a repeat customer. However, stores cannot contact or target them through Facebook via Hotspot.

Hotspot doesn't charge clients until 20 unique customers with its app or the Passport app enter their locations. Britt's pays $50 per month to have the beacons installed and access Hotspot data, and the firm always reaches its 20-person threshold, said Mr. Hussey.

Mr. Hussey expects to glean a large enough sample size to influence marketing decisions, but he said his Hotspot user base is too light for that now. He had 84 unique patrons spotted by Hotspot this month, though he has 300 to 400 customers in the establishment each night. The average time spent for patrons in June so far is 42 minutes, he said.

"I don't have enough people on the app to make any huge conclusions about the data that's being collected," he said. "We think it's going to pick up and be something."