Most people know that their behavior on a computer screen can be monitored. The sites they visit, how long they look at a particular page, and long-term patterns can all be explored, measured, and quantified. Online retail sites, for example, can determine customer preference and make recommendations based on browsing patterns as part of a business strategy – and they often do.

Computers and Brick-and-Mortar: More and More Alike

The ability of bricks-and-mortar stores to track the mobility of their customers may not be as well known.

However, brick-and-mortar locations use tracking methods much as computers do. Part of the reason is that many brick-and-mortar stores use smartphones to do what computers do online: the smartphones, through chips and other devices, track the presence of customers in the stores, their trajectories, and whether they linger in front of certain products or certain displays. The tracking is analogous to what is done on the computer.

Retail store can use the GPS signals from smartphones to track mobility of consumers. This gives stores, for example, the option to send a potential customer a message when they are in the vicinity and an offer for a discount to gain their business. Smartphones have an ability to track the level a person is at, so that stores in a mall, for example, can pinpoint which floor the person is on.

Privacy Versus Convenience

Customer acceptance and knowledge of the reach of these devices is still evolving. Three years, ago, for example, the department store Nordstrom’s was roundly criticized for tracking customers without their consent, according to ABC News. Many people felt this was a breach of their digital privacy. Nordstrom’s announced at the time that it was ending the practice.

CIO magazine cautions that the methods used should require physical store browsers to opt in. If a customer has an app for a particular store, for example, Bluetooth and other mobile technologies can be used to access its data when the customer enters the store if the app is turned on.

The data may be used to offer discounts, in much the same way as regular customer discounts and loyalty programs have operated for years. It can also be used to compile data on purchases.

Although some customers may be concerned about privacy, the ability to have roaming discounts offered could also provide discounts on purchases.

But the need to balance privacy and convenience is an ongoing issue. A recent NPR story noted that apps can be in “sleep” mode, causing customers to believe that their apps can’t be used for data gathering when, in fact, they can.

Bricks-and-mortar stores have multiple methods of tracking mobility data and store behavior and purchases. They include:

1. Tracking wi-fi fingerprinting. This is primarily used to track customers’ wi-fi signals as they browse. This can help stores optimize their product placement and other strategies.
2. Using the microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) chip on mobile phones. MEMS not only enables the accelerometer to let mall retailers know what level potential customers are on, they also have a gyroscope that shows direction and angle. This technology can develop a heat map so that data on how customers move through a store can be created.
3. LED Lighting. This uses the venerable lighting in many stores. All LED lights have a frequency, which a smartphone app can detect. Again, this can track location and movement within a store and can be deployed in targeted pricing.

Ultimately, the tracking potential in brick-and-mortar stores and computers is not that different, given contemporary technology. The balance between consumer benefit and privacy continues to evolve.