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In-store and online customer tracking: is it useful or is it stalking?

The other day I noticed that my Tesco shopping trolley had a monitoring device on it. On the back of the basket there was a small black box with a sign on it that said, “We’re working to understand how customers shop so we can serve you better.” Yikes, I am being tracked!

Digging into it deeper, being physically tracked through a store isn’t that unusual, it’s called “indoor positioning” and sophisticated retailers are using this capability. With the help of the Wi-Fi signal a customer’s mobile device emits, an indoor positioning system can triangulate someone’s position using the locations of Wi-Fi access points that are attempting to do a “handshake” with the device. The system can then ascertain whether it is a new or repeat customer, can track the customer’s journey and can also track dwell time in various regions of the store.

If this capability is used to its full potential, the retailer could run a promotion in a certain part of their store and monitor footfall. If monitoring customer traffic in real-time, a retailer could notice when queues are building up at the till or in dressing rooms and alleviate the bottleneck. In essence, indoor positioning has the capability of better understanding how a customer is behaving within a retail environment, which can ideally help with shop layout, promotions, merchandising and staffing requirements.

All this is possible, even when the customer is not actually logged into the store’s Wi-Fi, they just need to have Wi-Fi switched on their mobile device. A customer can be located, monitored and tracked all without realising their Wi-Fi signal is the culprit. Is this capability acceptable or creepy?

The same question can be asked of online user tracking too. After all, our mouse movements, website searches and website visits are being monitored, traced, sold and marketed. In fact, online tracking is more pervasive and sophisticated than in-store and it goes beyond simple retargeting. For example, online e-commerce technology enables a brand to trigger a pop up message if a user’s mouse is moving towards the right hand corner of the screen in an attempt to pre-empt website abandonment. Or, for example, an email can be automatically sent post shopping cart abandonment and it can include the items the customer was searching for within the website.

Whether it be the digital world or real world, our ability to accept in-store and online interloping comes down to whether this tracking will lead to a better user experience. Back to the black box on my shopping trolley… if it helps to lay out the store in a more user-friendly way and if it assists with shifting store staff to keep me out of a queue, then I don’t mind. Similarly, I don’t mind receiving product suggestions based on my online shopping habits and I love a simple, user-friendly e-commerce site. I don’t mind being tracked if a better customer experience is truly at the heart of the purpose.

Greta Paa-Kerner (@gretapk) is a senior lecturer specialising in digital and affiliate marketing at the IDM and Bucks Business School as well as an independent marketing consultant through Ganduxer Consulting. Visit her blog and LinkedIn profile at


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