Euclid uses shoppers' mobile device Wi-Fi addresses to give stores insight into their foot traffic. This is a sample page of what those stores see.

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This report from Brickstream shows stores their traffic at different locations.

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Brickstream can also show stores from which direction customers entered and pinpoint the busiest days of the week.

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Pinpointing store zones where customers stop, as Brickstream does in this report above, can help retailers optimize displays.

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This Brickstream report shows how busy the retailer was at different points in the day and how that affected average service time.

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Retailers can also access data from Brickstream through a mobile dashboard.

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Brickstream has a dashboard specifically for managing lines and staffing registers appropriately.

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Euclid also keeps tabs on customers that visit multiple retail locations for the same store.

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An overview dashboard from Euclid's service.

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Because each mobile device has a different Wi-Fi address, Euclid can keep track of how often customers return to a store.

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Euclid's store hours dashboard.

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RetailNext's video view

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This RetailNext heat map shows the areas of a store that get the most foot traffic.

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This RetailNext heat map gives a different view of store traffic.

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Using RetailNext's data, stores can create reports like this day of the week chart.

Here’s What Brick-And-Mortar Stores See When They Track You

Retailers are already able to track your movements and activities in the physical world like websites do on the Internet. Is that creepy? Decide for yourself.

In its guidelines for facial recognition technologies, the Federal Trade Commission paints a rather terrifying picture.

“Consider the example of a mobile app that allows users to identify strangers in public places, such as on the street or in a bar,” the guidelines read. “If such an app were to exist, a stranger could surreptitiously use the camera on his mobile phone to take a photo of an individual who is walking to work or meeting a friend for a drink and learn that individual’s identity--and possibly more information, such as her address--without the individual even being aware that her photo was taken.”

With this scenario hypothetically looming on the horizon, it's easy to see why technologies that use video and customer mobile phones to keep tabs on store foot traffic make some consumers feel uneasy--even though these technologies typically do not recognize faces, but rather detect and track customers in aggregate.

This RetailNext heat map shows the areas of the store that get the most foot traffic.

RetailNext, Euclid, Brickstream, Nomi, WirelessWerx, Mexia Interactive, and ShopperTrak are just a handful of services that provide brick-and-mortar stores with analytics akin to website traffic reports. By tracking movement within stores, they help retailers better understand how to optimize their layouts, staff their registers, attract returning customers, and more. Some extract turnstile-type traffic data from video feeds. Others, like Euclid, rely on devices’ unique mobile Wi-Fi addresses to report how many people pass a store, how many actually visit it, how long they stay, and whether they return. Mobile Wi-Fi can also be used to track how customers move through a store.

So is the tracking most stores are doing creepy? Decide for yourself. In the slideshow above, we’ve collected sample dashboards that show what information stores see about consumers when they use these services.

They're about as alarming as website analytics--which is to say, as alarming as anonymous bar graphs and heat maps can be. “Nobody knows that you went to the store,” argues RetailNext CMO Tim Callan. "What we know is that 1,000 people went to the store, and this is what they did together.” Other industry executives argue that their services are not creepy because they anonymize data about individual movements, make faces indistinguishable in images (unlike security cameras), and provide less information than is being collected about consumers by online stores.

More unsettling, however, is the potential of these systems. The FTC is only one player identifying somewhat disturbing “what-if” situations. In March, Senator Al Franken published a letter to Euclid with questions regarding its service, including reports that show how many people passed a store without entering. "It's one thing to track someone's shopping habits through a loyalty card or credit card purchase; folks understand that their information may be collected," Sen. Franken said in a statement. "It's another thing entirely to track consumers' movements without their permission as they shop, especially when someone doesn't buy anything or even enter a store.” Privacy advocates also worry about what might happen if data extracted using in-store analytics were combined--either by a store or someone stealing data--with information from other sources, such as credit cards, loyalty programs, or social networks, or, worse yet, if stores were to begin identifying individuals through facial recognition.

This latter scenario is currently possible. But Jason Sosa, who founded a company that has developed a technology for detecting age, gender, and expression through video cameras, says it’s not feasible at scale. “It’s computationally expensive,” he says. Plus, to identify an individual by name using video, a store would need to begin with a database of photos against which to match faces.

Attempts to quell consumer fears have been mostly industry-led. Earlier this month, for instance, a group of retail location analytics companies, including Euclid, WirelessWERX, Mexia Interactive, and ShopperTrak, announced they were working with a research group called The Future of Privacy Forum to develop best practices. Some services, like Euclid, also offer opt-out options. To opt out , users enter their mobile web ID onto a do-not-track list, which removes their phone’s identifier from the company’s database. Video-feed-based services generally don’t have an easy way to opt out consumers, as that would involve identifying them in the first place.

What else is there to prevent brands from crossing the line when collecting data in their stores? Mainly, the line itself. “Retailers are successful when they make their customers happy,” Euclid CEO Will Smith says. “If we’re creeping out customers, we’re not going to be doing a good job.”

[Image: Flickr user See-ming Lee]

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19 Comments

  • Retailer

    You do understand that it's illegal for the credit card companies to provide specific customer information back to retailers, right? This is a very paranoid article, with not a lot of good to come out of it.  The one thing that IS disconcerting is the notion that you could be tracked with the Mac address on your mobile phone.  Towards that end, I encourage turning off wi-fi unless you're allowed to opt in or out.  But this stuff is just silly.

  • Klein

    I'd like to buy a vowel Vanna. Got it!

    "Use prepaid dumb phones in public."

  • Just thinking

    It's funny how chucky schumer is bent out of shape about this yet think the guvment doing the same think is a non-issue

  • Death

    No doubt the stores will also scan everyone's junk like the sickos at the TSA do.

    Face recognition tech?  Maybe burkas will have some use after all, for men too.  With all this intrusion into people's privacy it is no wonder people are holing themselves up in their homes and not going anywhere.  Who the heck wants their every move tracked by the lowlife garbage that works in TSA, NSA, Homeland Suckurity, the IRS, obama's drones, and now retail america.  The world can go eff itself.

  • Dunnyveg

    What I do to try to beat this 1984-style totalitarian surveillance is to wear a ballcap, with dark, mirror glasses, not use "courtesy" cards, and pay for everything in cash.  If a merchant insists upon my name or any other personal identifying information, I walk out.

  • Dunnyveg

     Since I buy what I need, and much of what I want, I'm not sure why you would make this statement.  Everybody smiles at cash.  If you don't believe me, try it sometime.

  • Dunnyveg

     Flymuch, two thoughts:  First, I haven't flown since 9/11, and don't intend to, as I'm not prepared to give up my basic rights as an American to do so.  But where a credit card is required, I have a debit card.  The difference?  Even though I don't use the debit card often, it is spending my own money

  • Flymuch

     except for some airlines... credit cards only on the plane. unfortunately, I don't remember which ones and am feeling too lazy to look it up.

  • Dunnyveg

    Why would I care if retailers are "impressed"?  Pray tell, have you ever held an unfashionable thought about anything?  Or do you base all of your thoughts on "impressing" others?

  • nostudme1

    Basically a joke, nobody tells me what to buy, where to buy, when to buy as sure as the similarly minded  attempt to determine the climate.

  • constructionworker

    No doubt all this technology will be accessible by the NSA whenever they want to start using it.

  • Johnju

    No no...that's your online shopping...CIA gets your brick and mortar habits! =D