Retailers Keep Tabs on Customers with Beacons

Over the last few years, brick and mortar retailers have come up with some ingenious ways to gather data about the customers who walk into their stores. We’ve taken a look at some of them in past posts on this blog, including one story about “smart” mannequins that observe consumer patterns using cameras in the dummies’ eyes. Although that may skew a bit on the creepy side, it’s important to keep in mind that physical retailers are merely trying to imitate their online rivals. After all, websites like Amazon don’t need invasive cameras in order to track your every move.

Still, people are understandably wary about being watched while they shop. That’s why the latest customer-tracking tech doesn’t use cameras or any other equipment that might seem particularly invasive. Instead, this system relies on determining customers’ locations using small, inexpensive “beacons” distributed throughout a store. These beacons transmit signals that can be picked up by a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology, pinpointing the position of the phone’s holder within 2 centimeters. Once the customer’s location has been determined, they can then receive special offers and coupons if they’ve downloaded the store’s app.

Retailers like Macy’s, American Eagle, and Safeway have already implemented this tracking method in some of their stores. Not only are the beacons’ accuracy and effectiveness appealing, but also the system’s opt-in aspect removes much of the creepiness factor. “People won’t know these beacons are there,” said one industry expert. “They’ll just know their app has suddenly become smarter.” The beacons have applications outside the retail world as well. For instance, Major League Baseball and the National Football League have both tested the method in stadiums in order to direct users to shorter concession stand lines. The beacons have also been used at museums to give visitors historical information as they walk through a gallery.



  1. Are the “beacons” being used by retailers a violation of consumer privacy?
  1. Can the “beacons” be considered a benefit to consumers?


Source: Harry McCracken, “Nowhere to Hide,” Time, March 31, 2014. Photo by Chor Ip.