Location Analytics: All About Watching You


Forget Big Brother (or at least tuck that paranoia away for now). It's Big Retailer you should be worried about watching you.

And I'm not talking about those security cameras you pass on your way in and out of the big box store around the corner. That's kids' stuff to retailers in 2013.

Today's retailers want to know you so well that they're investing in technology that will let them track your movements from one location to another -- and yet another -- so they can see what you're buying and where. The impetus behind their interest in your every move is to gain such deep understanding of consumer behavior that they can fine tune inventory, pricing, and merchandising to their most-optimized states. Think of Target, a poster child for retail analytics, and its Guest ID program I mentioned in my post from earlier this week, Retailers Want Their Way With You.

Enabling this technology is location analytics, which combines a consumer's credit card information with geographic information system (GIS) data. Retailers mix that all up, look for patterns, and gain new understanding of how, where, and why shoppers do their thing.

Think of the way consumers interact as being "an ant farm of actions and transactions," suggests Simon Thompson, director of global business solutions at Esri, a GIS provider, in an October 2012 MIT Sloan Management Review interview.

Every transaction that goes into a point of sale system is not only recording something about the buyer and something about the product, but it’s actually recording the relationship between those two things. So if I, as a retailer, can backtrack to where the person making a purchase came from, I can make a connection to the type of transaction they’re doing.

If you think about it, Thompson says, your credit card is a "little GPS tracker." He painted this scenario:

An aggregator, for example, can discover that I went out to Joseph A. Banks and I bought two suits. And then I went to Marshalls and I bought a pair of new shoes. Then I went to Target and I bought the latest J.D. Robb novel. An aggregator can discover that I did one on the way to the office and then I went out at lunchtime and bought the J.D. Robb book. But then I discovered the sale at Joseph A. Banks and took advantage of proximity to that. So it wasn’t a planned activity. When you start mining geospatial data, these patterns become highly relevant.

There is a real capability to use mapping and location analytics to zoom in -- to really put a lens on top of your data that says, 'tell me something about this with these characteristics in terms of the who, the what, the when.' Then you try to understand the why, and use the where as the framework for all of those other questions that you want to ask.

Thompson told MIT SMR that Esri has thousands of customers using location analytics to watch customer movements. "In fact," he added, "we’re probably approaching hundreds of thousands."

Location analytics could well be the quintessential big-data application, as Financial Post writer Mitchell Osak notes in an article published yesterday. The technology's uniqueness, he said, "traces to its ability to mine insights between the interplay of unstructured data like physical location, geographic context, behavioral activities and social habits."

Being able to "overlay these location-centered insights with structured data found in existing databases like the census, internal CRM information and traditional geospatial technology that collects static information on roads, homes etc." boosts its power even further.

Retailers, of course, aren't the only types of businesses interested in and using location analytics. Restaurant chains are too, as are grocers, for example. Aren't we, after all, what we wear and eat?

Does the idea that you're being watched as you shop and dine bother you? Does it bother you so much so that you'll stop using credit, and coupons, if you haven't already? Share your thoughts below and take our latest Quick Poll, Credit Watch, at right.

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors, Folio.net, and others.

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Re: Tracking
  • 1/13/2013 10:54:19 PM
NO RATINGS

How do we want retailers to use our data? What would provide us real value as consumers?

Re: Tracking
  • 1/12/2013 7:04:55 PM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon_Hnery Good that we have common ground. I'm not sure I'm quite as positive about this form of analytics as the  January 7 post,  Big Data 101: Use Web Data to Understand Customer Intent. It asserts:

The new reality is that our customers' "now" is always evolving. Any historical view is just that - history. Just when you think you have it figured out, the world, the customer, or the competition changes.

However, in web data we have a pretty cool - and frankly, rare - opportunity. We don't often have the chance to capture this detailed information at the distinct customer level - and modern analytics and automation technology make it possible to utilize this data in creating better customer experiences (and increasing revenue). Plus, once we set up our analytics machine, we keep this customer view updated over time.

 

 

Re: Tracking
  • 1/11/2013 4:55:52 PM
NO RATINGS

..

Ariella writes


... I find a difference between a credit card triggering an alert for suspicious purchases -- as it also does for unusally large amounts, particularly if they are put through without the presence of the card -- or even the type of trail customers leave for retailers with loyalty cards and the type of surveillance depicted in 1984. What comes closer to that is New York City's Domain Awareness System.


 

I just want to make it clear that I too have been alerted on occasion by a credit card security office because of unusual activity on an account (e.g., larger than usual purchases), and I don't see this as an example of Big Brother in action.  And I agree about the NYC surveillance program...

 

Re: Tracking
  • 1/11/2013 12:35:57 PM
NO RATINGS

@Beth, yes, though it is predicated on certain assumptions about consumer behavior, so I'm sure that gets logged, as well.

Re: Tracking
  • 1/11/2013 12:19:33 PM
NO RATINGS

@Ariella, your credit card company is on its toes. But is this a case of tracking to understand consumer behavior or an example of fraud protection in action? It seems like the latter to me.

Re: Tracking at what grain?
  • 1/11/2013 12:02:45 PM
NO RATINGS

Lyndon, when I read your comment below, I wondered why the Texas school would want students to wear locator chips and figured it had to do with security. So it's facscinating to read that it's about state funding, instead. I'm not sure making kids wear rfid tags is the right answer, but it's at least an innovative approach to solving a huge problem educational funding problem. State funding can make or break a school's ability to move beyond the most basic of services, that's for sure. I'd have to think it first tried other measures.

Re: Tracking
  • 1/11/2013 10:23:44 AM
NO RATINGS

@Lyndon I find a difference between a credit card triggering an alert for suspicious purchases -- as it also does for unusally large amounts, particularly if they are put through without the presence of the card -- or even the type of trail customers leave for retailers with loyalty cards and the type of surveillance depicted in 1984. What comes closer to that is New York City's Domain Awareness System.

Re: Tracking
  • 1/11/2013 9:57:52 AM
NO RATINGS

..

Ariella writes


... I was already aware of the tracking. Some of it, believe it or not, is meant to protect the consumer.


 

I guess I must attribute some of my aversion to all this tracking and snooping to George Orwell.  Hovering in the back of my mind since my youth is the realization that it was through ubiquitous and constant monitoring of every move and word that Big Brother was aware of Winston Smith's aversion to rats...

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re: Tracking at what grain?
  • 1/11/2013 9:45:50 AM
NO RATINGS

..

Relevant to the issue of our being tracked (by gods both private and public) ... the following article was just posted to an Austin neighborhoods discussion forum:

Texas school can force teenager to wear locator chip: judge

It has prompted a rather hearty discussion...

 

Re: Tracking
  • 1/11/2013 9:11:12 AM
NO RATINGS

@Beth I was already aware of the tracking. Some of it, believe it or not, is meant to protect the consumer. For example, one morning both my husband and I went to the same gas station in separate cars. I got there earlier.  When he went, the self-service machine wouldn't accept the credit card. TThe same card used at the same station on the same morning. raised a red flag, and the credit card company blocked it. He was able to override by paying inside, though. 

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