I, like many people do, figure that while online shopping, companies track the things I look at, how long I look at them, and whether or not I buy them. This is, of course, then reflected in the advertisements that I will later see on other websites. Although slightly unnerving, tech-savvy consumers have come to expect this and generally aren’t perturbed by it. However, when similar tactics go on in brick-and-mortar stores, some people are not nearly as comfortable.
According to The New York Times, many retailers, such as Nordstrom, use the Wi-Fi signals of smartphones to track the paths customers take throughout the store. Combined with footage from surveillance cameras, the company is able to create a portrait of a shopper’s demographic and tastes. The company can see the approximate age and gender of the person. The Wi-Fi signal will also show whether or not the person is a return shopper.
Companies like RetailNext specialize in helping retailers gather and analyze data about their customers. Surveillance begins outside the store, judging how many people walk in out of how many people walk by. The customer’s path through the store is then tracked, with special attention paid to which display he or she walks to first, how long he or she spends at each display or item, and whether or not anything is actually purchased. If that’s not crazy enough, companies like Realeyes and Synqera actually allow retailers to analyze the facial expressions of customers to see their moods and reactions to different products.
Retailers defend this practice as improving the shopping experience for customers. That’s somewhat true: a company called Nomi uses Wi-Fi signals to track shoppers and can send this information to retailers so he or she can potentially figure out what customers are looking for and send them suggestions or coupons. Some people are certainly willing to sacrifice some privacy for conveniences like that. Retailers also point out that customer tracking happens all the time, albeit in a different form, on websites.
Most of this surveillance goes on without the knowledge or explicit consent of the customer, the Times explained. One Nordstrom store, however, decided to post a sign to let customers know that they were being tracked while they were in the store. The store ended the experiment in May, in part due to the comments and complaints from customers. People don’t like being tracked, and apparently they like knowing about it even less.
How do you feel about retailers using your cellphone to track your shopping habits?
[Photo of woman looking at shoe via Shutterstock]