Going to the mall? The stores are watching you…

While this week’s news that Nordstrom and other stores have been tracking customers’ smartphones as they enter and move around various retail outlets might come as a surprise to some shoppers, it is part of a growing trend of merchants and advertisers targeting consumers based on their constantly changing locations.

Coming in the wake of the furor over NSA surveillance programs, the idea that stores or indeed any third-party can track our physical movements might be unnerving, but the stores are only playing catch up with their online counterparts like Amazon and Google Shopper, who use cookies and sophisticated analytics to track the shopping habits of millions of Web visitors.

In fact, the stories emerging this week indicate the so-called brick and mortar stores are still some way behind online retailers in that they are mostly using tracking data to analyze store layouts, frequency of customer visits, and in-store movement, rather than trying to link it to purchase activity. But it’s not hard to imagine a future where stores recognize us as we enter, instantly access our buying histories, and upload special offers and bargains to our smartphones while we are still browsing the aisles.

Suddenly the personal shopper experience is available to everyone. Stores know what brands we like, what our price points are, and what times of the week or year we like to visit. It takes smartphone shopping to whole new level of convenience and efficiency.

But what about privacy concerns? Don’t the stores and their partners have access to our personal phone information? Once they have a phone number, they have an identity, and not everyone wants to join a brave new world where you share personal information just by walking into a store.

For now, there is a simple solution. The tracking technology works by collecting Wi-Fi signals. If you don’t want to be tracked when you visit a store, you can simply turn off the Wi-Fi option on your phone.

As for me, I say let them track. Anything that makes a visit to the local mall more efficient is OK by me. Besides, with my barcode reading app, my price comparison app, and my coupon-finding app, I already know when I’m getting a bargain!

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