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]

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.