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Cybersecurity

Big Brother Is Watching You Shop

Retailers are linking security cameras with software to track shopper behavior

On the Web, every click and jiggle of the mouse helps e-tailers customize sites and maximize the likelihood of a purchase. Brick-and-mortar stores have long wanted to track consumers in a similar fashion, but following atoms is a lot harder than following bits. For the most part, they’ve been forced to rely on consumer surveys, says Herb Sorensen, an adviser at market research firm TNS Retail & Shopper in London. “The problem with survey research is the consumer can say one thing and do another.”

To get a better understanding of their customers in real time, mall operators are monitoring shoppers’ behavior with devices that track mobile-phone signals, while retailers including Montblanc, T-Mobile, and Family Dollar Stores are finding new uses for old tools such as in-store security cameras. The goal is to divine which variables affect a purchase, then act with Web-like nimbleness to deploy more salespeople, alter displays, or put out red blouses instead of blue. Until recently, “stores have been a black hole,” says Alexei Agratchev, chief executive officer of consultancy RetailNext. “People were convinced something was true and spending tens of millions based on that” without evidence to back it up.