Malls and big-box stores can now track your movements as you shop

Malls and big box stores are getting smarter. But will the public and politicians view it as acceptable or an invasion of privacy?

Privacy is a funny thing. We all say we want it — but we’re also willing to quickly give it up if we believe it’s in our best interest (think national security) or if we don’t really understand how we’re giving it up (think Facebook and Google).

Website analytical tools have long been able to track visitors as they click through menus, products and pages. Full disclosure: tracking website visitor and social media behavior are some of the things at which we excel. Based on click-through data, we’re able to find how visitors move through a site and what they’re interested in based on the patterns of breadcrumbs they leave. This information is important. It makes better websites, better user experiences and, of course, helps increase sales.

But if you have a brick-and-mortar store you’ve had to rely on surveys, eye-witness accounts and inventory and purchase data. That is until now. Companies like Beemedia, RetailNext and Path Intelligence have invented technologies to learn about shopper behavior in real-world pedestrian environments.

Anonymous data collected from the paths people walk through their environment can provide a wealth usable information — just as it does online. For example, tracking how people respond to sale signs and banners during an event (ie. how effective they are at causing a shopper to visit a particular display or area) can help create more effective advertising and promotional tools. It can help tell a manager where to deploy sales associates, what products to highlight and which to remove. It can even help reduce inventory shrinkage (products lost through deterioration, obsolescence, pilferage, theft, and/or waste.)

The technology to track pedestrian behavior works in different ways. Beemedia offers free wi-fi — and uses the signals they receive to anonymously triangulate wireless devices. RetailNext uses advanced software to monitor existing in-store security camera video, as they do for Family Dollar. Path Intelligence’s FootPath technology uses anonymous cell phone signals. This past holiday season several malls began testing Path Intelligence’s FootPath technology, but after being installed only one day, the experiments were suspended following privacy concerns from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Real-life retail tracking is coming — and the necessary results it will provide will not only translate into profits for stores but also better shopping experiences for visitors.