Retailers criticised for Wi-Fi tracking activities

This week it emerged that a number of major retail chains, including Marks & Spencer, have begun trialling systems which allow them to keep tabs on customers as they move through bricks and mortar stores, building up a better picture of shopping habits in the process. But privacy campaigners argue that more should be done to alert people to the fact that such activities are taking place, rather than leaving them in the dark, according to the Telegraph.

Solutions which ping Wi-Fi enabled devices such as smartphones, count the volume of customers and track their location as they move about the store, are being deployed in growing numbers at the moment with tell-tale white boxes popping up at ceiling height throughout the high street. But since retailers are not currently obliged to tell their customers that they could be monitored in this way, there are concerns about how this might damage trust in big brands and small alike.

Data gathered through Wi-Fi tracking can be analysed in a variety of ways, enabling firms to see which parts of a store attract the most traffic and which may be missing out on the levels of footfall that are seen elsewhere. With this information in hand, it is easier to make changes to the layout of aisles and plan future changes to create a better experience for customers.

This location-based data can even be used for the purposes of providing people with promotions and offers, or indeed to discourage them from shopping elsewhere and ‘showrooming’ in high street outlets while they are also researching and purchasing online from their smart devices.

Even more in-depth analysis is possible once customers have signed up to in-store Wi-Fi hotspots directly and flicked through the terms and conditions associated with use, within which retailers embed further allowances in terms of the monitoring which is possible. This not only equates to tracking movement through a single store, but also wider location-based analysis and even the tracking of the sites they visit and services they use online.

Big Brother Watch spokesperson, Renate Samson, said that this Wi-Fi tracking should be treated in the same way as CCTV, with in-store signage signalling that anyone with wireless connectivity enabled is likely to be assessed by the retailer in question.

She went on to point out that this is not simply a matter of arguing for greater privacy protections for consumers, but also an issue in terms of security. Retailers not only need to ensure that the in-store connectivity they offer customers is protected from hackers, but that it is also less likely that malicious, fraudulent networks are not set up to dupe users into logging in while thinking it is a legitimate Wi-Fi service.

The influence of Wi-Fi tracking is already being seen in the way that certain retailers operate their stores. Top Shop’s Oxford Street outlet not only adjusted its opening times based on analysis of data gathered in this way, but also set up new fitting room services to minimise cart abandonment in the real world, not just online.

A similar scheme carried out by supermarket giant, Morrisons, enabled it to establish that it was not offering customers access to enough members of staff during the busiest periods of the week, meaning many people were becoming dissatisfied and simply leaving stores rather than heading to the checkout.

In the case of Marks & Spencer, it has admitted to testing out the tech but has yet to confirm which of its stores will be using it to track customer movements in the coming weeks.