Shopping centers track customers with mobile technology

A report in today's Daily Telegraph (UK) indicates that shopping centers are tracking customers via their mobile phones, see here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/mediatechnologyandtelecoms/8995867/Shopping-centres-track-customers-with-mobile-technology.html.

Those of you who were at last year's OpenWorld event in San Francisco will remember the demo scenario we used in many of our Big Data presentations, which showed exactly how this could be done using Oracle technology.  My colleague Jean Pierre Dicjks has dissected the demo scenario we created in a recent blog post on the Oracle Data Warehouse blog, see here: http://blogs.oracle.com/datawarehousing/entry/understanding_a_big_data_implementation

According to the Daily Telegraph report over 30 major shopping centers in the UK have installed monitoring technology although it is not clear how many have switched it on and are actively using it. This report has an interesting quote from Lawrence Hutchings, managing director UK retail, where he explains how the information being gathered could be used:
"If we have a better understanding of how people shop, we can locate retailers in clusters, improving their sales and footfall and also making the visit to our centres easier and more enjoyable for shoppers"
Data is collected via bluetooth from customers mobile phones as they move around these shopping centers although it is not clear from the article if customers have to opt-in to the data gathering process or if the tracking technology simply locks on to a bluetooth signal automatically. Of course the owners of the shopping centers are quick to point out that the technology they are using is not able to identify individual customers and does not collect phone numbers.

This is a great example of how "Big Data" can be used beyond the simple, single retailer examples which have been documented so far. It is the obvious next step up the food chain. Most of us shop in malls these days, data collection by a single retailer within that mall, while interesting in its own right, is somewhat limited in terms of the way that information can help determine business operations. It makes complete sense to elevate the tracking of customers to cover the whole mall.

While many of the examples of how this new tracking data could and will be used are interesting there are huge opportunities here.  Analysis of how people move around a mall should be used to influence the design and layout of new malls. Architects and builders could make use of this data to help them improve their designs and determine which types of shops to cluster in specific areas.

Retailers could use the information to help them manage their staffing levels. How many times do you go to the checkout and wait in a huge long line because half the checkouts are closed? Usually one of the staff has to make an announcement over the pa system to call extra staff to the checkout area. If the mall and store were wired to monitor the flow of people then the software could automatically ping the required shop staff to move to the checkouts as the number of pings increased in that area.

Moving the tracking to the car parking area would be useful. As people arrive the system could track your arrival at the mall then direct you to a suitable free parcking space - need a "compact" parking space, or may be a "Mom-and-kids" space the system could direct you quickly and easily to the right area and an open space. If no suitable spaces are available it could try and find an alternative and maybe issue a token or voucher for a store in the mall as an apology for not having the right type of space available. Need to find your car when you come back - not a problem the system could tell you exactly where you parked.

If we could get round the data privacy issue and actually opt-in to these tracking systems then malls could take control of the customers. To get customers to give up their privacy there has to be an incentive because people should not provide this valuable data about themselves free of charge. Mall owners and retailers make huge amounts of money from harvesting this type of data so customers need to make sure they get something of value in return for allowing themselves to be tracked! Nothing in this world is free and that should also apply to data provided by us, the customer.

What could mall owners and retailers do to incentivise tagging? Malls could electronically "meet and greet" you as park your car. Maybe you have a favorite parking spot close to a specific store the system could tell if that zone is busy and perhaps direct you another area.

Once the "mall" knows who you are then "personal" shopping recommendations become possible. Targeted advertising, your favorite shops would know you were in the mall and ask you if you would like to plan a visit - this would make it so easy to drop in at a restaurant and know you could get a table  "give us 10 minutes and we will have a table ready for you... Reply yes or no". Once you can be identified then the whole shopping experience becomes more personal and people are likely to remain loyal to that shop, restaurant etc. But why should loyalty not also extend to the mall. Maybe this new technology is a way for all those various shopping malls to create their own brand loyalty. Using "Big Data" technology is the perfect way for these malls to differentiate themselves from their rivals. By getting to know their customers and helping the retailers inside their mall get to know who is walking through the door everyone wins - including the customer.

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