Stores using our phones to track our movement, behavior while we shop - clever... or creepy?

Stores using our phones to track our movement, behavior while we shop. Clever... or creepy?

While online retailers like Amazon can collect and analyze an incredible amount of behavioral data via accounts, cookies, page-views and other web technologies, real world stores aren't so lucky. If you run in, pay cash, and run out, they're pretty much "blind". That is, until American fashion retailer, Nordstrom, decided to use our phones and their Wi-Fi signals to try and get in on the customer analytics game. Stephanie Clifford and Quentin Hardy writing for the New York Time:

Nordstrom’s experiment is part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behavior and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.

And they're by no means alone. Wi-Fi and video are new tools, but customer insight analytics has been going on for years. As long as they have a single unique identifier - a loyalty card number, email address, phone number - they can perform an incredible amount of analytics on our buying patterns. (That's why they're always asking for your contact info or trying to get you to sign up for their card.)

Actually monitoring our movements via video and Wi-Fi signal draws a more detailed, more accurate, more visual map of how we walk through stores and what gets our attention, but market basket analysis has been used to figure out the cheapest coupons that'll appeal to us and when, the best way to group products and offer sales, and what to stock up on and what to dump from the shelves. (And this information is sold back to vendors, creating a lucrative side business for retailers and analytics firms both.)

Theoretically, customers benefit through more timely and appropriate coupons, better store organization, and products that are more in line with what they want to buy. (Also, TV show lawyers could get their clients off because, hey, their phones were across town at the time...)

But, using Wi-Fi to actually track us moving through stores sets off all sorts of privacy alarm bells. When Nordstrom posted a notice about it, they received complaints and they ended the practice.

So here's the question: Do you care if a store uses your phone to track you while you shop? Do you use store cards, and/or give stores your email address or phone number now? Is live surveillance creepier than periodic check-pointing?

New York Time via @lessien

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Stores using our phones to track our movement, behavior while we shop - clever... or creepy?


Well, if you are leaving your Wi-Fi and BT turned on, you are the one that is broadcasting, not them, they are simply taking the signal, and applying math, etc, to it. Is it a bit eye opening how much they can glean from this seemingly limited information? Sure, but I don't feel that logically it is wrong or unethical. It is sort of like street photography. It is a little strange for people, but the fact is, its not wrong or illegal in any way (at least in the US, I don't claim to know the laws else where). Just as if you are walking around in any public location and people can take your picture, if you are broadcasting a signal, I think they can capture and track it.

Having a device that transmits wireless signals does not imply consent for other parties to capture those signals. My iPhone makes use of GPS for Location Services. My intent with having Location Services enabled is to improve the functionality of many apps that I use. This doesn't mean I'm giving the government (for example) consent to track my whereabouts.

Also, for your photography analogy, I disagree that legal means ethical or right. Legally speaking I could follow you whenever you're in public, take photos of you, and post them on the Internet without your consent. Legally you couldn't stop me. This doesn't mean it's the right thing to do, regardless of legality. Just because a business can capture the wireless signals of shoppers without breaking the law doesn't mean that they should. They're certainly allowed to, but consumers may also decide that they don't agree with it and stop frequenting those businesses.

Considering the effusive amount of information people voluntarily give up to Facebook, Twitter, website registration, etc, there is a bizarre hypocrisy here at being video & gadget stalked.

Until some landmark litigation I suspect that we will continue to see a great decline in privacy in order to boost corporate profits. And really that is what it is about: improving the bottomline through any means possible....other than providing quality products and services at a reasonable price.

I feel as though your comments are loaded. Yes, a corporation's job is to boost corporate profits. Kind of the definition o a corporation. Different stores use different techniques to accomplish this. Many (most?) stores that I shop at offer quality products and services at a reasonable price.

My old job built the analytics engine behind Tesco Club Card, among other things.

The shopping basket filled with diapers and beer is an industry insider classic.

This is *nothing*. There are several companies that are developing facial recognition software and tracking software that will look at your face when you walk in the door, then determine your sex and approximate age. It then monitors how much time you spend in each section of the store, which areas of the store are the biggest draws, etc. Using this technology stores will be able to track your movements from the moment you step through the door until the moment you leave, even tying your face to your purchases (and your name, if you use a "club card"). This isn't science fiction either. This technology exists today and is being developed and improved quite steadily and quickly. I don't know of any stores that have rolled it out yet, but it won't be long.

Wouldn't surprise me one bit about the facial recognition......but I would love to see their data on me....bc I'm 30yo yet still look like I'm freaking 18 & 15/16 if I have a clean shave. If they are going to try & steer me towards the Bieber/Twilight section they are wasting their time/$$ :)

I welcome it, and don't think its any different from Netflix tracking my viewing habits and customizing my front page on their app. I would love to walk in a store and have an automated system point me to things my size, my gender, and of the colours and styles I like.

If you use a credit card and browse the web or use a cell phone, most of your privacy is already gone anyway, we're just clinging to an imaginary privacy.

It should be all about "expectation of privacy". I, for one, don't have an expectation of privacy when I walk into a Nordstrom store (or any other retail establishment, for that matter). It's a public place, and the expectation just isn't there. For what it's worth, a store could have a person follow you around unobtrusively (they used to do this when they thought the individual being followed was acting suspiciously, now it's more commonly done via video), and they are completely within their rights.

Agreed that it may not be the most "ethical" or "right" (both VERY subjective terms) practice, but it is legal, and your recourse as a consumer/citizen is to stop frequenting such establishments if the practices bother you.

Personally, I don't sign up for "store cards" or "loyalty cards", or give them my phone number or email address, or anything like that. Short of that, they're going to have a difficult time tying my identity to my purchases, especially if I pay cash. If they want to use my habits anonymously, so be it.

Re: "So here's the question: Do you care if a store uses your phone to track you while you shop?"

Don't care at all if they try. But I usually turn off wi-fi when I'm out of the house / office.

Re: "Do you use store cards, and/or give stores your email address or phone number now?"

Never use store cards. Only give out my spam email address and alternate phone number (non-ringing, fax / data only).

Re: "Is live surveillance creepier than periodic check-pointing?"

Nope. The second you step out of your home, you give up most of your rights to privacy. The second you step into a retail store, you're going to be watched, and it's perfectly legal. Get used to it.

Don't mind stores tracking my movements in the store so much, it is the government I'm worried about tracking my movements.

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