Gunnar Assmy - Fotolia
The first time I browsed the web, I was 8 years old. My parents caught me, sat me down and said, "If you ever go on the internet, never share your phone number, address or name." I followed that advice for years, but today we live by different rules.
How much do you value your privacy? Maybe a better question might be: How much would you pay to be anonymous? Today, with new technologies that can pinpoint your preferences, purchases, location and more, anonymity is becoming more than a precious commodity -- it's becoming impossible to achieve.
New approaches to sales and marketing are all about gathering customer data that is quite personal. Consumers are often willing to give up this data in return for discounts and other offers that give them exclusive information. But companies and consumers need to be careful about how they gather and yield this information. It can easily step over the line. Consider mobile location-based services (LBS).
Mobile LBS allow companies to track your physical location and offer discounts or tailored messages to you. Tracking takes place through mobile phones, which allow incredible accuracy and on-demand positioning. Consumers use this information depending on their needs. For example, when you dial 911, the GPS in your cell phone triggers and sends location information to a dispatcher. This allows emergency personnel to identify your location, even if you don't know where you are. It has even allowed dispatchers to track victims of kidnapping without ever speaking to a person. This is one reason why any cell phone -- regardless of whether the phone is connected to a telecom carrier -- can contact 911.
Crossing the ethical line with LBS
Providing emergency services is a no-brainer. You would be hard-pressed to find an ethical debate against this type of location-based service. This on-demand service is widely known and accepted. The information exchanged is beneficial for all parties, from the customer to the provider. There is an exchange. But the bright-line ethics start to turn gray when consumers are unaware that they're being tracked, and the information benefits only one party.
But other industries are culprits for traveling a close line on mobile LBS ethics. RetailNext Inc. is an in-store analytics company based in San Jose, Calif., that characterized itself as the "first technology platform to bring e-commerce style shopper analytics to brick-and-mortar stores." The company went on to say, "More than 250 retailers in over 50 countries have adopted RetailNext's analytics software and retail expertise to better understand the shopper journey in order to increase same-store sales, reduce theft and eliminate unnecessary costs."
RetailNext uses a combination of detection of Wi-Fi enabled devices, point-of-sale systems, video camera feeds and free Wi-Fi. It can combine that location information with sales, loyalty programs and weather data. In doing so, they can provide retailers powerful analytics regarding customers, including age and gender, the amount of traffic they receive through parts of the store, which areas are capturing their attention and even how the staff is interacting with them.
This information is valuable for physical shopping centers that are struggling to stay competitive with online sales. Data derived from customers' mobile location-based services can help answer some insightful questions: Are customers price matching a product to ensure that they're getting the cheapest price? Why are people spending an average of three minutes at the sample station, but never making a purchase? Having real numbers associated with this information can enable retailers to react accordingly -- with accuracy -- and gauge effectiveness.
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