Big Box Brother: While You Shop the Mall, the Mall Shops You

From Black Friday though to the end of the December, two malls in southern California and Richmond, Va., will be following shoppers by tracking their cell phone signals. When somebody walks out of the Gap, into the Starbucks, out through the Nordstrom and on to the Auntie Annes pretzel stand, the mall will be monitoring.

Creepy? Maybe. But the information is anonymous and won't be used to target individual shoppers. Instead, it's part of a quiet information revolution among retailers to figure out how crowds move, where they cluster, and what stores they ignore. Tracking crowds isn't new. Tracking crowds through their cell phones is.

If you've got a problem with malls paying attention to your smart phone, you might want to stay away from the mall for, say, the rest of your life. The future of shopping, according to retail analysts I spoke with for a recent special report, is malls and phones talking to each other.

Paco Underhill, perhaps the world's foremost expert on the "ergonomic" shopping experience, predicted a future where grocery stores do your errands for you. Whole Foods could create a phone app that pings the customer -- "Here's your shopping list!" -- and lets the customer ping the store -- "I'd like to drop by at one tomorrow!" -- so you could drive up to the window, like at a fast food restaurant or pharmaceutical counter, to "fill" your Whole Foods order.

In another column for The Atlantic by Vipin Jain, CEO of the electronics shopping and review site Retrevo.com, we gazed into a future where the mall starts a conversation with your smart phone the moment you walk in. After "checking in" at the door, you would earn reward points to buy merchandise. As you walk through the store, the app would highlight the products it thinks you're most likely to buy. Got a coupon? Just tap your phone (provided its embedded with near-field communication chips) against the product label. "When you check out, reward points and coupons will automatically be applied to your purchase," Jain wrote.

The bottom line is that in the Black Fridays of tomorrow, as you browse the aisles, your bleary-eyed family members won't be the only things keeping you company.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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