Smart phone technology lets stores track shoppers' every move - FOX Carolina 21

Smart phone technology lets stores track shoppers' every move

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GREENVILLE, SC (FOX Carolina) -

With GPS tracking and video surveillance cameras, it's everyday retailers, shopping malls and grocery stores wanting to know where people are, and what they're buying.

As soon as smartphones and mobile devices became the norm, companies across the country had to find new ways to market to customers, and now they're going straight to the source.

They're micro-marketing, targeting, and tailoring their sales pitches to individual shoppers on their personal devices.

Many people have seen the e-mails suggesting products based on things they've already bought with a certain company. Now it seems like businesses are linking profiles and making people realize they may know a lot more information than folks think.

The issue comes with not knowing what it's for.

This happened with Renee Lister of Union. She said she bought an ink cartridge at the Union Walmart Supercenter and weeks later, she got an e-mail suggesting more ink cartridges that she may also like.

The thing was,  Lister hadn't bought the ink online, she used her credit card in person at the store. She said she never gave her e-mail address at the store so it seemed like somehow, Walmart's store system linked her credit card profile to her online profile.

"I know they do it with other web sites. When you Google something, it'll pop up on another web site. Here's an ad for this thing that you just looked up over there. And I understand that. That doesn't bother me. It's that they tracked me with my credit card information. What other information do they have?" wonders Lister.

A Walmart spokesperson explained that it was just Lister's name and zip-code that the store's system connected, not her credit card information. He said that information is highly secure and not used as an identifier.

But this personalized "micro-marketing" is something that business students at Coastal Carolina University have been studying. Their marketing professor and associate dean, Dr. Michael Latta, said that connecting web site shopping to the brick and mortar stores is not only the way of marketing in the future, but it's also necessary for business.

"None of this is evil in a sense. Marketers are trying to reach people have shown in the past, they want," explained Latta.

Even Coastal Carolina uses the concept of "Geo-fencing," which generally relies on GPS tracking, to send ads to prospective students in particular locations.

Associate Vice President for marketing at CCU, Matt Hogue, said that it's all about where people are getting their information that caused a shift in marketing, and since most students are on their mobile devices, that's where marketing is sent.

"Marketing and advertising haven't really changed, the principles of it. It's the way it's implemented that's changed," said Latta.

Latta explained that all companies want to do is to find out what the customers want to sell them more. The extent and information gathered, though, has many people who his students surveyed concerned.

Companies are even using surveillance cameras to track customers in their stores.

Latta expects that 40 percent of stores that use surveillance cameras have live monitoring, which means that real people can follow customers as they walk from their cars through a store. He said they're documenting demographics and popularity of certain products. Some stores even put cameras in shelves to watch customers as they're buying, according to Latta.

Deveren Werne, with Liquid Technologies in Easley, outfits stores with these types of "artificial intelligence" cameras.

He said while it's not happening yet, soon, stores that offer loyalty cards will be able to track shoppers personally, with their card and the video surveillance.

"So they know who you are, what aisle you're on. They know demographics of you, how old you are, what you make, how many people in your family, whether you have dogs or cats. They have all that data. And it's scary because, where does the privacy end and where does the anonymous data collection begin?" Werne called the system "Big Brother" to an extent.

He knows that shopping centers, groceries, and malls use "geo-fencing" so when people enter their network barrier, they can send coupons for deals. But it's almost all marketing that customers opt in for. Werne said by signing up for the apps, using a store's Wi-Fi, or getting a loyalty card, customers are giving companies their information, and permission to use it.

"It's in the fine print that nobody reads," said Werne.

National shopping chains in Greenville use apps like ‘Retail-me-not,' and ‘Shop-kick.' As users drive by certain locations, they're ping'd with a message about store deals.

With Haywood Mall's "Mobile Shopper Club" app, customers can get coupons sent to their phone when they walk in the mall's doors.

Mall marketing director Stacy Jacobs thinks that this type of connecting with customers is not going away any time soon.

She said, though, the mall doesn't track customers or take their personal information. Mall staff only know shoppers are there if they check in on social media, and the coupon apps only know someone's location to send a deal notification.

"I always tell people, if you don't like these things, turn your Wi-Fi off when you go in a store, you won't get push notifications," said CCU's Dr. Latta. He reminds people not to give out their information if they don't want to hear from anyone.

But not all "geo-fencing" even collects GPS data. CCU's marketing department buys ad space on mobile web sites in a specific area, during a limited time and date.

Matt Hogue said they geo-fenced ads in the Upstate around the holiday season so that whenever anyone went to certain web sites, like Accuweather, when they were near the Haywood Mall area, they saw a Coastal Carolina banner stream along the top of the web page.

"We're able to see correlations between when we're in the marketplace with advertising, particularly with a digital standpoint and jumps in the amount of visitors [to tour the campus] that [the admissions department] have," said Hogue.

Both CCU's Dr. Latta and Deveren Werne don't see a problem with this new form of marketing and marketing research, as long as companies follow a set of standards.

The only question comes at the hands of hackers.

There are multiple bills in different state legislatures, as well as ones in the U.S. House and Senate that aim to block GPS tracking of any kind.

Marketing experts expect that as technology progresses marketing will follow as long as legislation allows it to.

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