Stores turn to Wi-Fi to track shoppers' comings and goings

More brick-and-mortar retailers are tracking shoppers who come into their stores by using Wi-Fi signals to figure out how they shop.

From the "just a little creepy" department: Brick-and-mortar stores are experimenting with Wi-Fi and advanced video surveillance to track customers as they shop.

The New York Times brings word of the trend, noting that Family Dollar, Cabela's, Benetton, and Warby Parker are among the stores that are testing these technologies. Nordstrom also tried tracking users via their Wi-Fi signals, and even posted signs alerting customers to the practice, but the store abandoned the effort in May after customers complained.

Stores aren't able to glean personal information this way, but with Wi-Fi tracking services such as RetailNext, they can figure out how long shoppers stay, where they tend to look around, and whether they end up going to the register. Because smartphones are constantly looking for Wi-Fi signals, stores can detect the location of those phones within a 10-foot radius, even if the shopper isn't connected to the network, the Times reports.

Slightly more unnerving is the use of advanced video technologies to learn even more about shoppers as they browse. The Times describes a $1500 stereoscopic camera from Brickstream that can separate adults from children, and technology from Realeyes that can detect people's emotions. Better cameras and image processing have made these technologies possible.

Creepy as it seems, shoppers should realize that these forms of tracking aren't much different than the tracking cookies that online retailers use to follow people around the Web. If anything, tracking cookies are even more intrusive, because they are able to put together broader profiles of users as they use the Internet and tie those profiles to a single unique identifier.

And while the overall idea of being followed is unnerving, the goal of merchants, both online and offline, is to provide a better shopping experience. Just as tracking cookies aim to serve more accurate advertisements, retailers hope to figure out how people shop, and adjust their stores accordingly.

To what extent that actually helps sell more products is another question, one that's unaddressed by the Times story. But as one commenter points out, the big advantage brick-and-mortar stores have is the ability to make personal connections with customers. It'd be a shame to squander that advantage in pursuit of making the real world more like the online one.

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