Grocery shopping


Those of us with store loyalty cards are accustomed to the idea of giving up a little privacy, in exchange for convenience and cost savings. No one is forced to, however, since shoppers who prefer privacy can simply opt out of their stores’ loyalty program. But did you know your store can – and some have – tracked your movements and habits through your cell phone, without you opting in or even knowing it?

Much of this has been theoretically possible for a while. But at least one company is already doing it. Two retail industry groups recently announced the results of a study in which stores gained insights about their shoppers by following their cell phone signals. “Supermarket operators may soon have a way to monitor how and where customers shop their stores, using aggregated data from the shoppers’ own smartphones,” chirped a news release from the Center for Advancing Retail & Technology and the National Grocers Association.

The two groups worked with Birdzi, a company that describes itself as “an innovator in mobile-enabled shopper detection technology.” Last year, Birdzi deployed its shopper detection system in two grocery stores – the independent Lees Market in Westport, Massachusetts, and a County Market grocery store in the Midwest. As Birdzi explains it, its technology “detects and follows the movement of Wi-Fi enabled personal mobile devices throughout a store environment to accumulate actionable data.”

In other words, if you walk into one of those stores and Wi-Fi is enabled on your phone, the stores can track your every move. “Shoppers can choose to disable their Wi-Fi should they prefer not to participate,” the study adds helpfully, though it doesn’t say whether shoppers will be notified that the technology is in place so they can make an informed decision.

Why would retailers want to keep such a close eye on you, anyway? And what can your cell phone tell them, that security cameras, or some guy following you around, can’t?

Your cell phone signals can be tracked in near real time, allowing stores to watch what sections of the store people are frequenting, how many of them linger in front of a display or walk right by, and how long they spend in the store (about 15 minutes, on average, among shoppers in this particular study). And once your phone’s unique signal is in the store’s system, it can recognize you as a new, returning or frequent customer.


“Knowing how customers actually move around a store, and having insight into where they spend their time versus just passing through, are two key benefits of this system that will help retailers improve product merchandising, store layout and their customers shopping experience”, said Schuyler Hawkins of the Center for Advancing Retail & Technology.

Eventually, Birdzi says its technology could be used to send product information or coupons directly to customers’ phones, based on where they are in the store, or whether they’re new or frequent shoppers.

All involved in the study insist that the data they collect is anonymous, so they don’t know who individual shoppers are and can’t tie their cell phone signals to any personally-identifiable information.

But that may not always be the case. The British grocery chain Tesco, for example, offers free Wi-Fi in its stores – but only to customers who log in with their store loyalty card number. If Tesco were to deploy a shopper tracking system like Birdzi’s, it would know plenty of personal information about each shopper it’s tracking via their phones’ Wi-Fi signals.

To some shoppers, all of this sounds incredibly invasive. To others, it’s just the way things are nowadays. Our loyalty cards are already tracking our purchases, and security cameras are already watching us walk around the store. So what’s the harm in having stores follow our phones, if it means helping to make our shopping experience better?

Still, it might make you long for the days when your neighborhood grocer knew you by name, knew your preferences every time you walked in, and could make you a deal just because you were a good customer – without having to rely on tapping into your cell phone signal.

But hey, that’s “progress”!

photo by: danorth1

One Comment

  1. I, myself, am creeped out with all the new technology. I don’t have a smartphone and I am finding more and more reasons not to get one. I have to admit that I have signed up for many programs in which I share my shopping information in exchange for reduced prices and coupons; however, they are now finding ways to invade our privacy without our consent and without offering the shopper anything in return. I have a problem with that.

    I recently read that one of the permissions users agree to on Facebook is the ability for Facebook to activate your Wi-fi when it has been turned off. Do they really have that ability? And, if so, what is there to prevent these stores from doing the same thing?

    Privacy appears to be a thing of the past.

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