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They See You When You’re Shopping…

Sign posted in participating malls, alerting shoppers to the mobile phone tracking system.

In a recent news article, CNN reported that two U.S. malls – Promenade Temecula in Southern California and Short Pump Town Center in Richmond, Virginia – will be tracking customers’ movements during the holiday shopping time period by monitoring signals from their mobile phones.

The tracking system, called FootPath Technology, operates through a series of antennas positioned throughout the mall that capture the unique identification number assigned to each phone and track its path from store to store. The intent of this tracking system is to shed light on how long customers stay in a store or near a certain product in that store to see which stores and products are most popular and which are not. The system also attempts to highlight shopping patterns. For instance, do customers who shop at Nordstrom also visit Starbucks? How long do customers linger at Barnes & Noble? The information gained could potentially be very useful to retailers in figuring out what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, and catering their business to the right customer.

U.S. malls have been tracking how customers move throughout their stores for a while now, but this is the first time they’ve used mobile phones to do it. Previous tracking methods have relied on customer purchases, but by using mobile phones, stores can now track customers who don’t make a purchase at all. If they see that shoppers are visiting a store and spending lots of time near a certain product, but no one actually buys it, stores can use this information to help figure out what’s going wrong.

While this tracking system could be very beneficial to both retailers and customers, it still comes with the inevitable privacy concerns. The management company of both participating malls, Forest City Commercial Management, insists that personal data is not being collected. The system doesn’t take photos of shoppers or collect their name or phone number from their phone. “We are not looking at individual shoppers, but rather patterns of movement,” said Stephanie Shriver-Engdahl, vice president of digital strategy for Forest City Commercial Management.

Okay, but consider this. The article from CNN notes that the identification number assigned to each mobile phone, the one used to track its owner’s path throughout the mall, can be likened to the IP address of a computer. And we all know that the information on a computer is only “private” until someone hacks into it through the IP address. So, the tracking system isn’t specifically looking for personal information about shoppers, but it’s still there, isn’t it? Sucharita Mulpuru, retail analyst at Forrester Research, asks, “What happens when you start having hackers potentially having access to this information and being able to track your movements?”

Forest City Commercial Management has notified customers of the tracking system by hanging signs throughout the malls, telling shoppers that they can opt out of being tracked by turning off their phones. I wonder, first, how many bustling shoppers are actually going to notice these signs, and second, how realistic is it to ask people to turn off their cell phones while they’re at the mall? Good luck telling the next tween to come out of Hollister that she can’t text message her friends for the next 20 minutes.

Retail analysts note, however, that personal data like this is already being collected. Online shopping sites record customers’ names and purchase information, and then target them with online ads even after they’ve left the site. It’s a great way to drive business and to identify and pursue the best target audience, but invasive, nonetheless.

The bottom line is that consumer targeting and mobile technology are at the forefront of the digital media and online marketing world. When you combine the two, the result is likely to be a lucrative and efficient business opportunity, but with it comes an inevitable invasion of privacy. But, this is the direction we’re headed in.

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


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