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Commerce Weekly: Analytics for people, the next big thing in retail

Retailers tracking Wi-Fi, Payleven's new funding round, Square's success, and NFC's real role in mobile commerce.

Here are a few stories that caught my attention in the commerce space this week.

New trend in retail customer tracking: Smartphone Wi-Fi

my wifi hotspot is cooler than yours, on FlickrDan Tynan posted a two-part series (here and here) on IT World this week looking at growing trend of retail Wi-Fi tracking — retailers keeping track of you via your smartphone as you shop, much like online retailers keep track of your movements across the Internet. Tynan explains how they’ll do it:

“When you come within range of a properly configured Wi-Fi access point, it can record the wireless MAC address of your phone — a unique 12-digit number. Every time you pass by, that AP can log that number. … Think of it as Google Analytics for people; instead of measuring Web traffic, they’re measuring foot traffic.”

Tynan takes a look at Euclid Analytics’ software, which works with tracking device systems to help stores gather data on customers, from which aisles they spend time in to how many times they’ve visited the store to which locations they frequent. “[T]hey can even track people who walk by the store every day but never go in,” Tynan writes, “or [know] if more people enter after a window display is changed.” He notes that Euclid gathers data anonymously and in aggregate, storing the MAC address “in a one-way hash, so nobody can go backwards and figure out your actual MAC address,” but that the minute a shopper swipes a credit card, all anonymity is lost, at least as far as connecting a particular phone to a particular purchase.

Once an identity is linked to a MAC address, “all kinds of fun things can happen,” Tynan reports — retailers could text you as you walk by their stores in the mall and offer discounts or coupons to lure you inside, connect your in-store data to your online data for even deeper analysis, or even sell your data to someone else. He explores some of the privacy concerns and scenarios in his first piece and talks with Euclid Analytics director of marketing John Fu for some context in his second piece. Fu says their technology is — purposefully — not as Big Brother as it sounds:

“There are some powerful and potentially scary things you could do with this data if you wanted to, but I want to clarify that we are not doing any of those things. We anticipated these scenarios and came up with ways to prevent them from happening.”

In addition to creating a one-way hash for a customer’s MAC address, Euclid requires retailers to contractually agree “to not combine the behavioral data they collect with information they have about an individual’s identity,” and the company also “salts its data with a ‘statistically insignificant’ number of fictional customers” to further prevent customer identification, Tynan reports. He takes an in-depth look at some real world examples of Euclid’s use in retail locations and their efforts to protect consumer privacy, but also notes that “Euclid is only one of a half dozen companies using different techniques to help retailers track shoppers, most of which don’t bother to tell you.” You can read his complete report at IT World — part one, part two.

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