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Holiday shopping market research or Big Brother watching?

When the American Thanksgiving approaches, most of Canada is aware of this momentous occasion. The day is mostly about turkey, and football (for some, not necessarily in this order). However, their long weekend is focused on sales and shopping. New promotion campaigns and purchase incentives flood new and traditional media channels. The airwaves enable us Canadians to become aware of, and take advantage of, the promotions, as well. Cross border shopping and online sales peak for Canadians, too, at this time of year.

It’s no wonder that retailers are now starting to integrate technology to help track the movements and habits of (traditional) shoppers.  The market research results from tracking shoppers’ physical movements can be very lucrative for a retailer. The results can also be a valuable marketing tool for American and Canadian businesses, associations, and event planners.Winning brand strategies can be based upon the results of this type of research.

Starting on Black Friday and continuing through to New Year’s Day, there will be two U.S. malls (one in southern California, the other in Richmond, Va), that will track its guest’s movements by monitoring the signals from their cell phones. Data is said to be anonymous, and will follow shoppers’ paths from store to store. This data will show, as an example, how many Nordstrom shoppers stop at Starbucks, and for how long they spend at each stop. Also, tracking will uncover what areas in the mall are least frequented. The U.S. has tracked similar information in the past, but this is the first time they key into cell phones to access personal shopping paths.

Though this can be a marketer’s dream: learning what stores couple well with each other (potential cross promotions), length of time a shopper spends in a store (create future testing opportunities), and personal habits based upon geographic and demographic info, there are a myriad of concerns. Big Brother may need to duel it out with the Privacy police.

The malls do state that no personal data is being tracked, and there will not be any analysis into individual shoppers. There is also signage notifying people as they enter the malls. However, it may raise concern on how this type of accessibility is permitted and whether individuals should have the right to deny access to this information. Currently, the only way to deny permission is to turn off the phone. Alternately, a future consideration may be an opt-in method (BTW, this is where Canadian anti-spam law is heading).

The tracking system is called FootPath Technology and it works through a series of antennas positioned throughout the shopping centre that capture the unique identification number assigned to each phone (similar to a computer’s IP address), and tracks its movement throughout the stores. Retailers like JC Penney and the Home Depot are now on board to work with this technology. This could be a great tool to track its shoppers habits within its retail outlets, and to learn about its shoppers habits and paths in different city centres. There is already technology in place online, that tracks customers, and targets them with ads that suit their individual interests (based upon past websites visited) and, based on this historical data, continues to show ads on webpages even after the shopper has left a retailer’s website.

Let’s face it, Thanksgiving is a consumer driven holiday. Black Friday and now Cyber Monday (special online sales) create hysteria amongst Americans. If you recall, last year, there was a woman who died being trampled upon at a Walmart. Is $400 savings from a flat screen T.V. worth it? Apparently so. Retailers yearn for this time of year, it is the blast-off moment to motivate holiday shopping.

As a marketer, it is fascinating to learn new ways on how retailers can persuade consumers to shop at their stores. This technology can definitely become a valuable tool for retailers but could also serve to help event planners, associations, and other businesses. As the technology becomes more accessible, it can help uncover how people move through a special event, or trade show (what booths are visited the most), or how long they stay onsite and in certain locations, at an event.

There is a lot of debate regarding the ethics of information gathering and the predatory-like behavior of ‘Big Brother watching’ from George Orwell’s book, 1984. Both Google  and Apple have been caught using tracking software. Facebook is also guilty. Hungry for more information on this? Check out what other cellular operators and cellphone manufacturers are doing.

We look forward to finding out the results from the mall tracking experiment. What do you think, would you turn your phone off upon entering a mall?

Best wishes to our American neighbours! Have a safe and fun Thanksgiving with family, friends, and football.



Marketing strategist and founder of Infuse Five Infuse Five, based in Ottawa, Canada, helps businesses and associations, across North America, grow. Focus is on innovative marketing and communications strategies. Ottawa marketing customized to fit your specific business needs.

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