Retailers can also use the wifi search signals embedded in customers' phones -- even when those phones aren't connected to the stores' wifi networks -- to track their customers' movements throughout a store. (To within, according to an executive at the in-store analytics firm RetailNext, a 10-foot radius.) And if you have a retailer's app on your phone, all the better. That allows the business to cross-reference your digital movements against your physical ones, adding to the picture they have of you as a consumer.
The goal of all these applied analytics, per the stores that are experimenting with them? The same goal as the stores' digital counterparts: improved targeting. The in-store surveillance, retailers say, makes them better able to provide their customers with the stuff they want to buy -- even if the customers themselves might not know, yet, that they want to buy it. The Russian startup Synqera, for example, uses facial recognition technology to tailor marketing messages to customers according to their gender, age, and mood. (So, per a company representative, "if you are an angry man of 30, and it is Friday evening, [the Synqera software] may offer you a bottle of whiskey.")
All this analytic effort is simply a way for retailers to even the playing field when said field stretches all the way to the Internet. If physical stores are going to have to compete with Amazon, they're going to have to do so on Amazon's terms -- which means, in turn, that they're probably going to have to do so using Amazon's rules. As one purveyor of customer surveillance technology put it, "I walk into Macy's, Macy's knows that I just entered the store, and they're able to give me a personalized recommendation through my phone the moment I enter the store. It's literally bringing the Amazon experience into the store."
Indeed. For the customer, however, that merger of digital and analog approaches to commercial tracking will force some questions when it comes to privacy. It's one thing to follow consumer movements through the Internet, where users -- through privacy software, web history management, and the like -- have at least a modicum of control over the information retailers have access to. It's another thing to have your movements monitored as you go buy milk. It's the difference, in some sense, between tracking and pseudo-stalking.
And yet there's reason to think that in-store surveillance will become yet another example of the fluidity we're willing to tolerate when it comes to the balance of privacy and convenience. Consumer reactions to the store-stalking practices, the Times points out, are decidedly (and, I'd add, tellingly) mixed. Some users, when informed of the practices, are disturbed; others seem to see the in-store movement-tracking as a fair compromise for a shopping experience that is personalized and therefore efficient. ("I would just love it if a coupon pops up on my phone," one shopper put it. The stores, she noted, are "trying to sell, so that makes sense.")