Bringing Online-Style Shopper Tracking to Stores? It May Be Closer Than You Think

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Credit: Zebra Technologies

One distinct disadvantage offline retailers have against online competitors: They can't easily track and analyze how people move through their stores. They usually don't know when someone puts something in a cart and then takes it out, abandons a cart or scopes out competitive prices at the shelf using smartphones.

Zebra Technologies is out to change all that by installing sensor grids in stores that combine video with tracking of mobile device signals and radio frequency ID tags on products and packages. So far two major mass retailers the company declined to name have been testing the technology, and Zebra hopes to enlist more interest as it unveils its system at the National Retail Federation "Big" show next week in New York.

"There's a big, meaty problem in brick-and-mortar retail about getting real-time information in the store about the customer experience," said Thomas Bianculli, chief technology officer of Zebra. "E-tailers have all this information online about what people are doing, what's in the basket, what products have I hovered over but haven't put in my basket, what have I pulled out, have I abandoned my basket, and then much higher levels of inventory accuracy because they're fulfilling from a warehouse. At a brick-and-mortar store they've got at best 60% inventory accuracy. They really have no idea if someone has walked out of their store frustrated because they had something in their basket but couldn't find something related. Or maybe they comparison shopped and then walked out of the store."

Ever been followed around online by ads for products you shopped for or didn't buy? Theoretically, the Zebra technology could help do the same thing based on stuff you shopped for in a store but didn't buy, though Mr. Bianculli, recognizing the potential for privacy concerns, said a lot of things need to happen first.

"This is about using the location information to do things for people, not to people," he said. "It's helping me get my work done better because you're enabling me to do something I couldn't before as opposed to tracking me to do something to me. On the consumer side, there is no tracking of the consumer device without the store application being on the device and then being enabled through an opt-in process. The only reason the shopper is going to do that is because you've provided a service whose convenience outweighs concerns about privacy."

Zebra is also looking to help deter theft – by employees or shoppers – particularly using RFID. Should sensors pick up 20 pairs of jeans moving through a store in a cart, that might trigger a security alert, Mr. Bianculli said. Two pairs of jeans in a cart would simply look normal.

Or the sytem might trigger a visit from a floor sales rep to someone who'd been lingering near a high-value product for an extended period, he said. And it might help evaluate employee performance by logging how much time they spend engaging with customers.

Mr. Bianculli believes Zebra's combination of in-store sensing technology and software for real-time analytics will be "one of the bigger announcements in our space in the better part of a decade. We're able to bring the online analytics the an e-commerce website has to the offline word and then help them make better decisions in real time."

Zebra didn't start out in retail. It's been in healthcare, manufacturing (including with Boeing) and logistics – even football – where it's "The Official On-Field Player-Tracking Provider" of the NFL. This involves putting RFID tags in players' pads to allow coaches to track and analyze their movement.

It's not quite the same thing in stores. Shoppers won't get RIFD tags, for example. Indeed, not even that many individual products even get tagged today: Those will tend to be higher-value, higher-margin items in SKU-instensive categories like apparel or electronics, Mr. Bianculli said.

In stores, Zebra intends to deploy grids of sensors every 50 feet or so that have video, RFID reading and micro-location to within a couple of feet for shoppers or employees based on their smartphones or Zebra handheld devices.

Over time, analyzing the sensor data may help retailers recognize what kind of product displays or in-store marketing work best at generating sales. But really the possibilities depend on what retailers and third-party firms develop.

"We have an API [application programming interface] and set of applications to kickstart things," he said. "But that API will be public so anyone can write their own applications or larger retailers can write their own."

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