Shopping Center Tracking System Monitors Your Every Move

Tracking System Monitors Your Cell Phone & Location While Shopping

Next time you go to the shopping mall, you might want to turn your cell phone off. Why? Dozens of major shopping centers nationwide are implementing shopper-tracking technology that tracks shoppers’  movements from store to store by monitoring the signals from their cell phones.

While U.S. malls have long tracked how crowds move throughout their stores, this is the first time they’ve used cell phones. The tracking system data that’s collected is supposed to remain anonymous, but obtaining that information naturally comes with privacy concerns. The tracking system data knows who you are and where you’ve been.

The tracking system works through a series of antennas positioned throughout the shopping center that capture the unique identification number assigned to each phone (similar to a computer’s IP address), and tracks its movement throughout the stores.

The goal is for stores to answer questions like: How many Nordstrom shoppers also stop at Starbucks? How long do most customers linger in Victoria’s Secret? Are there unpopular spots in the mall that aren’t being visited?

Computerized shopper-tracking technology is nothing new.  Malls have been tracking shoppers for years through people counters, security cameras, heat maps and even undercover researchers who follow shoppers around.

But critics and some industry analysts worry about the broader implications of this kind of tracking system technology.

Over 15 years a computerized shopper tracking system was capable of monitoring traffic data and analyzing shopper behavior, long before cell phones were everywhere, so one must ask: ‘Why do they need to track my mobile phone? Is this a violation of privacy? Aren’t there other ways to gather the data without monitoring my personal whereabouts?’

A computerized shopper tracking system can tell retailers and their landlords:

  • Total Traffic by Entrance. Provide a count of the number of shoppers using a specific entrance and its percentage of the total mall’s traffic.
  • Total Traffic by Time of Day. Effectively position tenants based on their operational background. For example, a tenant that receives most of its business from 2 to 4 p.m. would be best positioned by an entrance that enjoys similar traffic patterns.
  • Total Traffic by Day. Know daily shopping strengths and weaknesses.
  • Comparisons over Extended Time Periods. Demonstrate long-term traffic trends and help evaluate management’s performance in delivering shoppers to the tenants.
  • Average Shopping Time. Evaluate the type of customers attracted to the mall based on the time spent shopping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting on Black Friday and running through New Year’s Day, two U.S. malls — Promenade Temecula in southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Va. — will track guests’ movements by monitoring the signals from their cell phones.

While the data that’s collected is anonymous, it can follow shoppers’ paths from store to store.

The goal is for stores to answer questions like: How many Nordstrom shoppers also stop at Starbucks? How long do most customers linger in Victoria’s Secret? Are there unpopular spots in the mall that aren’t being visited?

While U.S. malls have long tracked how crowds move throughout their stores, this is the first time they’ve used cell phones.

But obtaining that information comes with privacy concerns.

The management company of both malls, Forest City Commercial Management, says personal data is not being tracked.

“We won’t be looking at singular shoppers,” said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City. “The system monitors patterns of movement. We can see, like migrating birds, where people are going to.”

Still, the company is preemptively notifying customers by hanging small signs around the shopping centers. Consumers can opt out by turning off their phones.

The tracking system, called FootPath Technology, works through a series of antennas positioned throughout the shopping center that capture the unique identification number assigned to each phone (similar to a computer’s IP address), and tracks its movement throughout the stores.

The system can’t take photos or collect data on what shoppers have purchased. And it doesn’t collect any personal details associated with the ID, like the user’s name or phone number. That information is fiercely protected by mobile carriers, and often can be legally obtained only through a court order.

“We don’t need to know who it is and we don’t need to know anyone’s cell phone number, nor do we want that,” Shriver-Engdahl said.

Manufactured by a British company, Path Intelligence, this technology has already been used in shopping centers in Europe and Australia. And according to Path Intelligence CEO Sharon Biggar, hardly any shoppers decide to opt out.

“It’s just not invasive of privacy,” she said. “There are no risks to privacy, so I don’t see why anyone would opt out.”

Now, U.S. retailers including JCPenney and Home Depot are also working with Path Intelligence to use their technology, Biggar said.

Home Depot has considered implementing the technology but is not currently using it any stores, a company spokesman said. JCPenney declined to comment on its relationship with the vendor.

Some retail analysts agree the new technology is nothing to be worried about. Malls have been tracking shoppers for years through people counters, security cameras, heat maps and even undercover researchers who follow shoppers around.

And some even say websites that track online shoppers are more invasive, recording not only a user’s name and purchases, but then targeting them with ads even after they’ve left a site.

“It’s important for shoppers to realize this sort of data is being collected anyway,” Biggar said.

Whereas a website can track a customer who doesn’t make a purchase, physical stores have been struggling to perfect this kind of research, Biggar said. By combining the data from FootPath with their own sales figures, stores will have better measurements to help them improve the shopping experience.

“We can now say, you had 100 people come to this product, but no one purchased it,” Biggar said. “From there, we can help a retailer narrow down what’s going wrong.”

But some industry analysts worry about the broader implications of this kind of technology.

“Most of this information is harmless and nobody ever does anything nefarious with it,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, retail analyst at Forrester Research. “But the reality is, what happens when you start having hackers potentially having access to this information and being able to track your movements?”

Last year, hackers hit AT&T, exposing the unique ID numbers and e-mail addresses of more than 100,000 iPad 3G owners. To make it harder for hackers to get at this information, Path Intelligence scrambles those numbers twice.

“I’m sure as more people get more cell phones, it’s probably inevitable that it will continue as a resource,” Mulpuru said. “But I think the future is going to have to be opt in, not opt out.”