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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Indoor Positioning for Retail Innovation

We worked on this problem for our own innovation center tests.

A Smart Indoor Positioning System for Retail Automation

For the last few years we’ve been hearing about the retail apocalypse, though we would characterize it more as a retail extinction event. The difference being that until a couple of months ago, the demise of many brick-and-mortar businesses was a long, drawn out affair. No more. COVID-19 has caused a true retail apocalypse – goodbye, JCPenney, Pier One, J Crew, and company – by hastening the death of these ailing giants. There’s obviously a knock-on effect to tech companies shopping retail automation solutions. However, for one small Silicon Valley startup spun out of MIT, the novel coronavirus brought an unexpected opportunity for its thermal-based indoor positioning system.

You’re Being Followed
We’ve been covering the automation of retail for quite some time, from cashierless stores to robotic fulfillment centers in retailers like Walmart. The real money, of course, is in marketing. But it’s no longer necessary to blast messages and advertisements across a black hole and hope a few escape the gravitational pull of customer indifference. Today’s retail tech promises marketing precision by attempting to track and predict customer behavior in real-time both online and in the physical world. 

A company like Zenreach, for example, makes a pretty good case of ROI for its WiFi hotspot marketing software that tracks how well the store’s message is doing based on how many people walk through the door. Audio beacons are another way that stores can directly track customers by using sound to locate people through their smartphones. These technologies do start to leak into the creepy zone when you realize that the devices are communicating about you and your shopping behavior at a frequency you can’t detect. They also think you’ve put on a bit too much weight with all of the COVID-19 stress eating.

In fact, there are quite a few indoor positioning systems that scientists and startups have developed to track motion and trajectory. Not all of it is directed at marketing. WiFi motion sensors, for example, use WiFi signals for various smart home applications like security and even in-home elderly care, with algorithms trained to detect falls and too many trips to the cookie jar.

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