How stores use your phone’s WiFi to track your shopping habits


Brian Fung
Washington Post
October 20, 2013

“Every smartphone these days comes equipped with a WiFi card.”

“Every smartphone these days comes equipped with a WiFi card.”

Here are some of the things the owner of a brick-and-mortar store is in a position to learn about his business these days, as Jules Polonetsky, the director of a Washington think tank, told me recently:

The average wait time at the back register is two minutes. Half of your customers have been in your store twice in a week. Ten percent of the people who come in your store never come near a register, meaning they don’t buy anything. There are a lot of people not finding what they want. The big promotion on the east side entrance of your store was more successful at bringing people to purchase than the promotion on the west side of your store. Here’s the hotspot in your store that draws the most users. The typical user comes in and purchases one thing. Ten percent of your users have been at more than one of your stores.

The list of insights is staggeringly specific, made possible by combining commercial ingenuity with an everyday technology that was never intended to be used this way.

Every smartphone these days comes equipped with a WiFi card. When the card is on and looking for networks to join, it’s detectable by local routers. In your home, the router connects to your device, and then voila — you have the Internet on your phone. But in a retail environment, other in-store equipment can pick up your WiFi card, learn your device’s unique ID number and use it to keep tabs on that device over time as you move through the store.

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