The shopping malls that track your shopping patterns

Two shopping malls are starting a new program where they track the shopping patterns through shopper’s cell phone signals:

From Black Friday though to the end of the December, two malls in southern California and Richmond, Va., will be following shoppers by tracking their cell phone signals. When somebody walks out of the Gap, into the Starbucks, out through the Nordstrom and on to the Auntie Annes pretzel stand, the mall will be monitoring.

Creepy? Maybe. But the information is anonymous and won’t be used to target individual shoppers. Instead, it’s part of a quiet information revolution among retailers to figure out how crowds move, where they cluster, and what stores they ignore. Tracking crowds isn’t new. Tracking crowds through their cell phones is.

If you’ve got a problem with malls paying attention to your smart phone, you might want to stay away from the mall for, say, the rest of your life. The future of shopping, according to retail analysts I spoke with for a recent special report, is malls and phones talking to each other.

When I saw this story last week, my first thought was “what took so long?” This doesn’t sound too different than what is going on while you surf the Internet: there are a number of people very interested in the data generated by your browsing and shopping patterns. You the shopper/browser are in a closed system and you are a very valuable data point. This is also a reminder that shopping malls are not public spaces: just like large stores, retailers and mall operators want to funnel you in certain ways such as past the food court (good smells can be positive for spending money) and past a number of attractive displays, advertisements, and storefronts (all meant to get you to open your wallet and act upon unrecognized desires).

One other thought: I wonder how shoppers at a mall might fight back. How about turning off one’s cell phone while inside? How about walking in “unusual patterns,” whatever that might look like? How about boycotting malls that practice this? How about using this as another rallying point for shopping local – they can’t (or at least shouldn’t) track you while shopping on Main Street. How about forcing malls that do this to post signs about what exactly they are doing? If the shopper does indeed have valuable information and money, why not get some concessions from the mall operators who would like to have this data?

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