Lee H. Badman

Network Computing Blogger


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Wi-Fi Turns Into Retail Spy

When you place an order with the likes of Amazon or other online merchants, you have no choice but to yield up lots of little bits of information. Along with the purchase itself, online retailers know what else you looked at, for how long and whether targeted advertising hooked you in. This and other information becomes a King Solomon's Mine of shopper data. Traditional brick-and-mortar stores can't come close to capturing that level of detail, but that balance may be changing.

Earlier this month, WLAN vendor Aerohive announced a partnership with Euclid, an analytics company that focuses on the retail sector. The partnership will put sensor functionality into Aerohive APs to enable them to gather data for the Euclid platform. The APs can serve as standalone sensors, or as sensors that also provide in-store Wi-Fi. The sensor software in the APs captures the MAC addresses of Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones that come within the APs' range.

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Depending on how the APs are placed, Euclid can report on the number of people who walk past the store, the number of visitors inside the store, how much time they spend there, and visitor frequency. According to Eric Krapf at No Jitter, Euclid does not attempt to associate users with their MAC addresses.

As part of the partnership, Aerohive customers get a Euclid dashboard for free that's rolled into their existing Hive Manager online dashboard. More in-depth metrics are offered in a premium version. Aerohive says the sensor capability will be available as a free OS upgrade in March. Euclid can also work with any wireless vendor as a stand-alone platform.

The Aerohive/Euclid integration also has hooks into third-party loyalty and couponing systems, which helps make data gathering for legacy shopping almost as sophisticated as online commerce.

Other vendors are also taking a crack at using customers' smartphones at physical retail locations to capture more data. Case in point is Nearbuy Systems, which offers an in-store portal for large retail stores that lets customers use their smartphones to access free in-store Wi-Fi. When customers log in, Nearbuy captures customer activity, including in-store locations, and can offer deals and other enticements based on where the customer is in the store.

Both the Aerohive/Euclid and Nearbuy's approach require a smartphone's Wi-Fi radio to be enabled, which isn't always the case for consumers. Both systems also ignore feature-phone customers and those who aren't carrying a mobile device.

Aerohive's latest move demonstrates that wireless has become much more than merely an on-ramp for clients to a merchant's network. Many of the same details that online merchants once "owned" are now available to physical stores that are properly equipped. It's easy to think of retail Wi-Fi as the stuff of inventory tracking or perhaps a guest network to lure shoppers in, but store owners can also transform Wi-Fi into a powerful intelligence-gathering tool.


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