Nordstrom Uses Smartphone Signals to Track Your Shopping



Since publishing this blog we have learned from Nordstrom spokeswoman Tara Darrow that the details of what information was gathered, and for what purpose, are not correct. While it is entirely true that many stores are using the below described methods of tracking and data collection to create a specific customer profile (check out the NY Times article that first brought this matter to our attention), Nordstrom never gained any personal data, nor was it their goal to do so – rather they were just monitoring foot traffic through areas of the store. Security cameras were never used in conjunction with this. For more details from Tara herself, please see the comment section below this blog. Our apologies for getting things mixed up!

In this day and age, we have come to expect that we are being watched by someone at least some of the time. Conspiracy theorists tend to focus on the government’s ability to track our every move, and we have all become accustomed to online retailers sending us emails based on what we have recently purchased. But have you stopped to consider that you might be watched while you shop at your favorite brick and mortar stores?

Big Brother is Watching

Nordstrom recently came under fire for using smartphone wifi signals to track their customers’ every move as they shopped. By using what they saw on the camera feeds, as well as what data they were able to acquire from the wifi signals, the store was able to collect a staggering amount of information including the gender of the customer, how long they stayed in each section of the store and how long it took them to make a purchase after initially seeing the item.

Nordstrom hoped that the information would allow them to use new and innovative ways to help boost sales. For example, Big Brother Nordstrom would be able to see that you had been staring longingly at a pair of shoes for an extended period of time without making an actual purchase. They would then be able to email you a personalized coupon good for discounted shoes, today and today only.

Customers Not Impressed

Even though online retailers like and many others have been using similar information gathering tactics for years, Nordstrom’s customers were a little offended by the stores new methods. Although some people dismissed the tracking as yet another sign of the times, the majority of Nordstrom shoppers felt that the use of both cameras and smartphone signals marked a huge invasion of privacy. Subsequently, Nordstrom ended their experiment in May.

What does this mean for your business? Clearly, we have all come to expect a little Big Brother-like activity from the government and businesses alike in the era of Big Data. However, most people still enjoy the idea of having some semblance of privacy when they go about their daily lives. If you are going to use collected information to market to your customers, make sure that you are not overstepping the boundaries of their privacy.

What do you think of Nordstrom’s information gathering experiment? Have you used similar methods to try and “get into your customers’ heads” or is that all a little too Big Brotherish for you?

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A teacher by trade, Elizabeth LaBelle graduated with honors from the University of Michigan in 2011. After specializing in Political Science and Francophone Studies with a minor in Korean, the only tangible skill she can show for it is the ability to write in all three languages. Elizabeth never thought she would get paid to write in any language – but after four years washing dishes in an industrial kitchen and a year selling office supplies door-to-door, nothing surprises her. When she’s not writing or teaching, Elizabeth coaches high school debate and forensics. Her hobbies include thoroughbred racing, competitive pool playing and hunting for the perfect Chicago apartment.

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