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Creepy Internet-Style Tracking and Targeting Analytics Are Moving into Real Life

A company is using cameras and heat sensors to track people in their store

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The internet cosmetics company Birchbox is opening up its first brick and mortar store in New York City. It has a similar design aesthetic to the company's online store--white walls like a website background, products grouped in the same categories as they are online. "Birchbox designed its store to look like its website," observes Quartz.  

Yet the similarties between Birchbox's digital and physical ventures is more than skin deep. Birchbox's store will feature analytics similar to those that track customers clicking around on the internet. Except instead of your mouse clicks, Birchbox will literally be tracking your movements.

Quartz explains: 

Birchbox is using cameras and heat sensors to track customers as they make their way around the store, seeing which products they’re attracted to and how they use the iPads. [Birchbox co-founder] Beauchamp told Quartz that they’re looking into adding WiFi analytics and want to make the Birchbox app “a companion to the store.” When connected to WiFi, the app would be enabled to send push advertisements and collect customer data, like how many times the user has visited Birchbox and what products she’s purchased.  

Real world tracking is nothing new, of course. Rewards programs at drugstores, supermarkets and luxury goods retailers have long encouraged customers to fork over phone numbers and buying habits in exchange for coupons or a cheap gift. And some of the millions of security cameras installed in stores across the US can automatically detect behavior that might indicate shoplifting.

Retailers want your phone number or zip code or purchase history because there's a lot to be learned from such data. Statisticians working for Target can figure out when a pregnant woman is in her second trimester based on a change-up in her buying habits.

“If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” statistician Andrew Pole told a New York Times reporter. “We want to know everything we can.”

Yet the ways to be tracked, the things that statisticians can know about customers, are increasing. Birchbox isn't inventing a new field, it's joining many retailers in tracking real life customer movements. When some stores offer free Wi-Fi, says TechCrunch, they use that connectivity to track customers' internet searches--like looking up a competitor's prices--or see where they go within the store. 

TechCrunch describes the activities of the six-year-old analytics company RetailNext:

Today, the company focuses on crunching retailers’ so-called “big data” from a variety of sources, including from video surveillance, passive Wi-Fi tracking, point-of-sale systems, workforce management tools, credit card transactions, and more. It even grabs weather data. 

For Birchbox, the highly-wired brick and mortar store is basically an ad for the website. "[T]hey are clear that they do not expect the store to be a moneymaking operation," says the New York Times. Instead, it's just another source of data.

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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