November 24, 2011 | San Diego, CA

Holiday shopping? We know where you are

Well, not you exactly you, but malls are rolling out technology that tracks customers’ patterns throughout the mall using cell signals. They say they aren’t collecting personal information, but say they want to be able to track customer traffic patterns, for example, how many customers visit Starbucks after visiting Nordstroms.

The technology, called FootPath, is being rolled out at a mall in California and Virginia. There are signs hanging around the mall describing the technology, and apparently customers may opt-out by turning off their mobile devices. But how many customers want to go the mall without their mobile devices, just to avoid being tracked? Shouldn’t this be an opt-in service, where prospective data gathering services ask customers if they want to be involved, traditional survey style? Apparently, similar setups have been rolled out in Europe and Australia, and the vendor says few customers opt-out.

Retail analysts counter by saying various research projects have been tracking customer movement around retail locations for years, so the technology is just an add-on. But generating a profile of a customer by tracking movement through various locations could be very telling.

If, for example, a customer visited a youth baseball athletic gear display in a sporting goods store, it could be inferred that they are either a youth, or a parent of a youth of a given age group. But if they visit Victoria’s Secret next, odds increase that they are a young mom with at least one child of a certain age. In this way, an increasingly accurate digital dossier could in be assembled realtime about the “anonymous” customer, determining with greater accuracy what other products they may be interested in, allowing other shops to display demographically targeted realtime digital ads on TV’s as the “anonymous” customer enters their stores, sort of a “you may also like” on steroids.

This is the type and level of detail marketers have been drooling over for years. But do customers realize how much can be inferred from something as simple as where they are, measured against a database of customer pattern history? We’ve seen this online with aggressive tracking mechanisms, but now physical storefront retailers are taking an interest.

In short, your anonymous tracking information may provide a boon for the mall retailers without you even knowing it. Not to mention other uses like psuedo-intelligent systems that spy traffic patterns typical in shoplifting, which may then be answered by increased security staff surveillance near where the “anonymous” trigger customer is located. Privacy zealots promise to watch the technology as it progresses.