Mobile Trackers Infiltrate the Food Court as Firms Fight for More Shopper Data

Beacon Networks and Partners Are Expanding and Becoming More Complex

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Simon-Owned Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Simon-Owned Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
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That Lord and Taylor app will not only remind shoppers of a deal in the men's shoe department; it might help retailers find out which entrance consumers used to get into the mall or what route they took to the Cinnabon.

Lots of companies have been experimenting with mobile tracking beacons to determine where shoppers go and what they do in their stores. Now, through a proliferation of third-party technologies and partnerships among retailers, shopping centers and mobile tracking firms, they have access to more data than ever about what consumers did before they got there.

Mobiquity is among those at the forefront of the trend. The tech firm owns and operates beacons -- small devices that pick up on signals from mobile phones -- in 240 malls owned by Simon Property Group. The company expects to expand its presence to 290 malls by July as a result of signing with shopping center owner Macerich to become its exclusive common area beacon provider earlier this month.

While marketers have had insight into where people roamed outside of stores through geo-fencing technologies, recently they've been able to tap into more precise location data via beacons dotting the shopping landscape in food courts or other areas not associated with a specific retailer.

The promise is for retailers to better understand their customers' behavior before and after they enter their stores and to communicate with them even when they're on the other side of the mall. For example, a retailer that works with Mobiquity would be able to anticipate that a shopper who has come to the mall on Tuesdays via the southwest entrance just might do the same thing again.

"That's the information they crave," said Dean Julia, co-CEO of Mobiquity Technologies. "The amount of metadata that we have, we can tell the time and location for the shopper who has a participating app."

Those apps are the keys to the system. The company's beacons only recognize signals from phones that have applications featuring its software development kit or SDK. That would include the Lord and Taylor app, or non-store-specific apps such as the Simon Mobile app, or ShopAdvisor for example. Mobiquity gathers the Apple Identifier for Advertisers or the Android Ad Identifier codes from devices with apps featuring its SDK. "If you do not have our SDK in your phone we do not get any data from you," said Mr. Julia.

Its partner apps -- and most others for that matter -- require people to allow phone location tracking before downloading them. However, whether consumers who download apps that connect with these more extensive tracking systems are truly cognizant of the extent to which their movements outside stores are being tracked is a question retailers and their partners will have to address as such technologies proliferate.

"Macerich's goal is to use the beacon platform to enhance the overall guest experience with timely and relevant messaging about our amenities, such as our text-based concierge service, ... same-day package delivery service, retail promotions, and gift card purchasing," said Petra Maruca, VP of business development for Macerich. Ms. Maruca declined to discuss details of the transaction with Mobiquity.

Swirl is another Mobiquity partner, and its own strategic shift represents the rapidly evolving and increasingly labyrinthine world of mobile tracking. Formerly a consumer-aimed shopping app that counted several retailers with Swirl's beacons installed in their stores, Swirl now focuses on embedding its technology into other retail apps such as RetailMeNot. RetailMeNot also has partnered with GGP malls to test beacons and other marketing technologies.

Swirl's relationship with Mobiquity helps it pair data showing that someone looked at a handbag in a partner's store with information about the shopper outside the store. "Otherwise we don't really know anything about you when you're in the common area," said Hilmi Ozguc, founder and CEO of Swirl.

Swirl manages campaigns for retailers and shopping app publishers who push out targeted offers to people who have downloaded their apps. It also runs a retail app ad exchange that uses mobile beacon data to deliver messages from product brands while shoppers browse in specific stores selling their wares. For instance, someone in the cosmetics section of a department store might get a push notification on her phone from a makeup brand. The company works with Mobiquity to access data showing where the people who have downloaded apps in its network are when they're in common areas of malls.

IBM is now on board, too. The firm will help Mobiquity push its beacon services to potential clients and assist the mobile tech company in campaign analytics and integration with retailers.

According to Swirl, its retail partners own the data it manages on their behalf. Yet, Mobiquity makes a point of stressing that it owns the data it gathers. The company allows a retail partner to see the information gathered on people who have downloaded its app, but does not reveal information about one store's shoppers to another store, for example. "We do not cross pollinate," said Mr. Julia. The information can be viewed in real-time through a reporting platform.

What does Mobiquity want to do with all that data? "We hope to monetize it," said Mr. Julia, noting the Garden City, N.Y., firm stores its data in dedicated servers and in the cloud and has a team in Barcelona managing that process.

He continued, "We've spoken to numerous ad networks and they all seem to think that adding that piece of data is extremely valuable and they would be able to upsell on CPM pricing."