Retailers may soon use your cell phone to follow you around in their stores

They’re watching.
They’re watching.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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Last winter, I contemplated purchasing a particular pair of leather boots for months before pulling the trigger. After I checked them out on at least two different websites to compare prices, they started to appear in ads all over my screen, stalking me with me promotional ads, and eventually a discount.

Those sorts of marketing efforts, which are the result of activity tracking that many find to be insidious (and others find to be convenient) may soon be ubiquitous in real life, brick-and-mortar retail. According to a Nov. 13 Havard Business Review article by researchers Robert Haslehurst, geolocation-enabled apps in our cell phones could soon revolutionize retail in brick-and-mortar stores.

According to the researchers, shoppers would give a retailer’s app permission to track their locations, and in return receive rewards. A customer lingering in the designer shoe department, for example, might receive an alert for a promotion on leather boots. Similarly, Elle magazine has partnered with an app called ShopAdvisor that will alert users when they are within a mile of Levi’s, Vince Camuto, Barnes & Noble or Guess where they can purchase items endorsed by the magazine.

“Because the data is collected using the consumer’s own device, the retailer can tie behavior and feedback into other Big Data sets such as transaction and loyalty data, as well as demographic and segment information about the customer,” write Haslehurst and McKone.

Beyond that, it will help retailers keep an eye on the store, and identify points where opportunities for sales may be lost: “In-the-moment feedback can help the retailer personalize the shopping experience, ratchet up the level of customer engagement or even rescue a lost sale.” Because that data will be valuable to retailers, they’re likely to offer real incentives for customers to provide it.

The apps could also offer retailers the opportunity for valuable customer feedback, by asking them to evaluate their experiences in real time, calling to mind the prompt to rate an Uber driver directly after a ride.

Still, many shoppers may respond to the prompt to download an app the same way they do to approaches from real-life retail associates: “No thanks. I’m just browsing.”