Tag Archives: store tracking

Building a Career Around In-Store Measurement and Location Analytics

Over the nearly two decades I spent in digital analytics, I did a lot of selling. More than I ever wanted to. But during that time, I saw the process of selling digital analytics transformed. When I started, way back in the ‘90s, selling web analytics was evangelical. I had to convince potential clients that the Web mattered. Then I had to convince them that analytics mattered to the Web. If I got that far, I just to convince them that I was the right person to buy analytics from. But since there were only about five other people in the world doing it, that last part wasn’t so hard!

Over time, that changed. By 2005, most companies didn’t need to be convinced that the Web mattered. The role of analytics? That was still a hard sell. But by around 2012, selling digital analytics was no longer evangelical. Everyone accepted that analytics was a necessary part of digital. The only question, really, was how they would provision it.

I didn’t miss the evangelical sell. It’s a hard path. Most people are inherently conservative. Doing new stuff is risky. Most organizations are pretty poor at rewarding risk-taking. It’s great to suggest that analytics is powerful. That it will do the organization good. But for someone to take a risk on a new technology and process, there needs to be real upside. Think of it this way – just as VC’s expect out-sized returns when they invest hard-cash in risky startups, so do decision-makers who are willing to go outside the well-trodden path.

Well, with Digital Mortar, I’m right back in the evangelical world. I have to sell people on the value of in-store customer measurement and analytics – and often I have to do it within environments that are significantly disrupted and challenged. So here’s the question I ask myself – what’s in it for an influencer or a decision-maker?

I think that’s a surprisingly important question and one that doesn’t often get asked (or answered).

If you’re thinking about in-store measurement and analytics, here’s the personal questions I’d be asking if I were you (and my best guess at answers):

1. Is there a future career in this stuff?

There was a time when understanding how to create digital analytics tags was a really critical skill. That day has passed. Tagging is now a commodity skill often handled by offshore teams. In technology and analytics, in-demand skills come and go. And it’s critically important to keep building new skills. But which skills? Because there’s always lots of possible choices and most of them won’t end up being very important.

It’s pretty obvious that I believe location analytics has a big future or else I wouldn’t have started Digital Mortar. Here’s why I think this stuff matters.

I saw how compelling analytics became in the digital world. With increasing competition and interaction between digital and physical experiences, it’s just implausible to believe that we’ll continue in a world where online experiences are deeply quantified and physical experiences are a complete mystery. Every digital trend around customer centricity, experimentation and analytics is in-play in the physical world too – and all of them drive to the need for location analytics.

The thing is, measurement creates its own demand. Because once people understand that you can measure something, they WANT to know.

It will take a while. Change always does. But I have no doubt that in a few years, measurement of the physical customer journey will be well on its way to being the kind of table-stakes must-have that digital analytics is in the web world. That means new roles, new department, new jobs and new opportunities. Which brings me to…

2. Is there a real benefit to being an early adopter?

The people who got into digital analytics early carved out pretty admirable careers. Sure, they were a smart group, but in a new analytics domain, there is a real premium to early adoption. When that field starts to get traction, who gets to speak at Conferences? Who gets to write the books? It’s the early adopters. And if you’re the one speaking at conferences or writing the books, you get real opportunities to build a unique career. Being an early adopter of a technology that pans out is a huge win for your personal brand. It almost guarantees a set of terrific career options: leading a consultancy, having a cush job as an evangelist at a place like Google, getting recruited by a technology unicorn, or managing a large group at a premium company. All good stuff.

And by the way, it’s worth pointing out that this type of measurement isn’t limited to retail. You think resorts, arenas, and complex public spaces don’t need to understand the customer experience in their spaces? Location analytics won’t be in every industry. But it will be every WHERE.

But none of that stuff will happen unless you have some success.

3. Can I be successful right now?

How much success you need is easily exaggerated. Early adopters (and this is a good thing) are like fisherman. We mostly know how to tell a good story. But getting real success IS important. And fortunately, location analytics systems are good enough to do interesting measurement. The capture technologies have plenty of issues, but they work. And a platform like DM1 lets you do A LOT with the data. Best of all, if you’re already experienced with digital analytics, you know a bunch of what’s important about dealing with this data. That makes early adoption a little less frightening and a lot more likely to be successful.

There are real use-cases for this technology. Use-cases that have been hidden by the generally awful analytics capabilities of previously existing systems. This kind of measurement can identify and help solve line and queue management problems, answer questions around store and location design, resolve issues around staffing and associate optimization and feed better forecasting and allocation models, and drive powerful enhancements to customer CRM and personalization efforts.

4. How risky is it?

Middling. This stuff is still pretty new. But it’s starting to mature rapidly. The technology is getting better, the analytics software just got MUCH better, and the needs just keep growing. As with most analytics – the hard part is really organizational. Getting budget, getting authority, driving change – those are always the hardest tasks no matter how challenging things are on the data collection and analytics front. But no one’s ever seen this kind of data before. So the bar is incredibly low. When people have spent years living with hunch, intuition and door-counting as their sole metrics, you don’t have to provide world-beating analytics to look like a star.

5. Is it interesting (because no one wants to spend their life doing boring stuff)?

Yep. This stuff is deeply fascinating. Customer experience has long been one of the most interesting areas in analytics. People are great to study because their behavior is always complex. That makes the analytics a challenge. And because its people and behavior and the real-world, the problem set keeps morphing and changing. You’re not stuck analyzing the same thing for the next ten years.

Even better, identifying problematic customer behaviors is the table-set for actual business change. Once you’ve found a problem, you have to find a way to fix it. So the analytics drives directly into thinking about the business. I like that a lot. It means there’s a purpose to the measurement and the opportunity to brainstorm and design solutions not just analyze problems. If you enjoy doing digital analytics (or have always thought you might), this is an even richer and more complex set of analytic problems.

Yeah. It’s fun.

Which brings me to the bottom line. Risk is risk. A lot of businesses fail. A lot of technologies don’t take off. But I’m pretty confident that in-store journey measurement and location analytics will become a significant discipline in the next few years. If I’m right, there will be real dividends to being an early adopter. Both for the companies that do it and the people who drive it. And along the way there’s some fascinating analytics to be had and a whole bunch of really interesting stuff to learn. That doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.

Four Fatal Flaws with In-Store Tracking

I didn’t start Digital Mortar because I was impressed with the quality of the reporting and analytics platforms in the in-store customer tracking space. I didn’t look at this industry and say to myself, “Wow – here’s a bunch of great platforms that are meeting the fundamental needs in the space at an enterprise level.” Building good analytics software is hard. And while I’ve seen great examples of SaaS analytics platforms in the digital space, solutions like Adobe and Google Analytics took many years to reach a mature and satisfying form. Ten years ago, GA was a toy and Adobe (Omniture SiteCatalyst at the time) managed to be both confusing and deeply under-powered analytically. In our previous life as consultants, we had the opportunity to use the current generation of in-store customer journey measurement tools. That hands-on experience convinced me that this data is invaluable. But it also revealed deep problems with the way in-store measurement is done.

When we started building a new SaaS in-store measurement solution here at Digital Mortar, these are the problems in the technology that we wanted to solve:

Lack of Journey Measurement

Most of today’s in-store measurement systems are setup as, in essence, fancy door counters. They start by having you draw zones in the store. Then they track how many people enter each zone and how long they spend there (dwell time).

This just sucks.

It’s like the early days of digital analytics when all of our tracking was focused on the page view. We kept counting pages and thinking it meant something. Till we finally realized that it’s customers we need to understand, not pages. With zone counting, you can’t answer the questions that matter. What did customers look at first? What else did customers look at when they shopped for something specific? Did customers interact with associates? Did those interactions drive sales? Did customer engagement in an area actually drive sales? Which parts of the store were most and least efficient? Does that efficiency vary by customer type?

If you’re not asking and answering questions about customers, you’re not doing serious measurement. Measurement that can’t track the customer journey across zones just doesn’t cut it. Which brings me to…

Lack of Segmentation

My book, Measuring the Digital World, is an extended argument for the central role of behavioral segmentation in doing customer analytics. Customer demographics and relationship variables are useful. But behavior – what customers care about right now – will nearly always be more important. If you’re trying to craft better omni-channel experiences, drive integrated marketing, or optimize associate interactions, you must focus on behavioral segmentation. The whole point of in-store customer tracking is to open up a new set of critically important customer behaviors for analysis and use. It’s all about segmentation.

Unfortunately, if you can’t track the customer journey (as per my point above), you can’t segment. It’s just that simple. When a customer is nothing more than a blip in the zone, you have no data for behavioral segmentation. Of course, even if you track the customer journey, segmentation may be deeply limited in analytic tools. You could map the improvement of Adobe or Google Analytics by charting their gradually improving segmentation capabilities. From limited filtering on pre-defined variables to more complex, query-based segmentation to the gradual incorporation of sophisticated segmentation capabilities into the analyst’s workbench.

You can have all the fancy charts and visualizations in the world, but without robust segmentation, customer analytics is crippled.

Lack of Store Context

When I introduce audiences to in-store customer tracking, I often use a slide like this:

In-store Customer Analytics

The key point is that the basic location data about the customer journey is only meaningful when its mapped to the actual store. If you don’t know WHAT’S THERE, you don’t have interesting data. The failure to incorporate “what’s there” into their reporting isn’t entirely the fault of in-store tracking software. Far too many retailers still rely on poor, paper-based planograms to track store setups. But “what’s there” needs to be a fundamental part of the collection and the reporting. If data isn’t stored, aggregated, trended and reported based on “what’s there”, it just won’t be usable. Which brings me to…

Use of Heatmaps

Heatmaps sure look cool. And, let’s face it, they are specifically designed to tackle the problem of “Store Context” I just talked about. Unfortunately, they don’t work. If you’ve ever tried to describe (or just figure out) how two heat-maps differ, you can understand the problem. Dialog like: “You can see there’s a little more yellow here and this area is a little less red after our test” isn’t going to cut it in a Board presentation. Because heat-maps are continuous, not discrete, you can’t trend them meaningfully. You can’t use them to document specific amounts of change. And you can’t use them to compare customer segments or changed journeys. In fact, as an analyst who’s tried first hand to use them, I can pretty much attest that you can’t actually use heat-maps for much of anything. They are the prettiest and most useless part of in-store customer measurement systems. If heat-maps are the tool you have to solve the problem of store context, you’re doomed.

These four problems cripple most in-store customer journey solutions. It’s incredibly difficult to do good retail analytics when you can’t measure journeys, segment customers, or map your data effectively onto the store. And the ubiquity of heat-maps just makes these problems worse.

But the problems with in-store tracking solutions don’t end here. In my next post, I’ll detail several more critical shortcomings in the way most in-store tracking solutions are designed. Shortcomings that ensure that not only can’t the analyst effectively solve real-world business problems with the tool, but that they can’t get AT THE DATA with any tools that might be able to do better!

Want to know more about how Digital Mortar can drive better store analytics? Drop me a line.

In-Store Customer Journey Tracking: Can You Really Do This?

When I describe my new company Digital Mortar to folks, the most common reaction I get is: “Can you really do this?”

Depending on their level of experience in the field, that question has one of two meetings. If they haven’t used existing in-store customer tracking solutions, the question generally means: is the technology practical and is it actually OK to use it (i.e. does it violate privacy policies)? If they have experience with existing in-store customer tracking solutions what they mean is: “does your stuff actually work as opposed to the garbage I’ve been using?”

I’m going to tackle the first question today (is the technology practical and legal) and leave the second for next time.

Is the Technology Practical?

Yes. As my post last week made clear, the various technologies for in-store customer tracking have challenges. Data quality is a real problem. There are issues with positional accuracy, visitorization, journey tracking, and even basic reliability. This is still cutting or even bleeding-edge technology. It’s like digital analytics circa 2005 not digital analytics 2017. But the technologies work. They can be deployed at scale and for a reasonable cost. The data they provide needs careful cleaning and processing. But so does almost any data set. If chosen appropriately and implemented well, the technologies provide data that is immediately valuable and can drive true continuous improvement in stores.

How Hard is it to Deploy In-Store Tracking?

Unfortunately, the in-store customer tracking technologies that don’t take at least some physical in-store installation (Wi-Fi Access Point based measurement and piggybacking off of existing security cameras) are also the least useful. Wi-Fi measurement is practical for arenas, airports, malls and other very large spaces with good Wi-Fi opt-in rates. For stores, it just doesn’t work well enough to support serious measurement. Security cameras can give you inaccurate, zone based counts and not much else.  Good in-store measurement will require you install either measurement focused cameras or passive sniffers. Of the two, sniffers are lot easier. You need a lot less of them. The placement is easier. The power and cabling requirements are lower. And they are quite a bit cheaper.

Either way, you should expect that it will take a few weeks to plan out the deployment for a new store layout. This will also involve coordination with your installation partner. Typically, the installation is done over one or two evenings. No special closing is required. With sniffers, the impact on the store environment is minimal. The devices are about the size of a deck of playing cards, can be painted to match the environment and any necessary wiring is usually hidden.

After a couple week shake down, you’ll have useable measurement and a plan you can roll out to other stores. Subsequent stores with the same or similar layout can be done as quickly as your installation partner will schedule them. And the post-install shake-down period is less.

So if you’re planning a Pilot project, here’s the timeline we use at Digital Mortar:

Month 1

  • Select Store Targets: We typically recommend 3 stores in a Pilot – one test and two control stores with similar layout and market.
  • Select Initial Store
  • Design Implementation for the Initial Store
  • Train Installation Partner
  • Do initial 1 store installation

Month 2

  • Test the initial installation and tune plan if necessary
  • Rollout to additional stores
  • Provide initial reporting
  • Targeted analysis to develop store testing plan

Month 3

  • Run initial test(s)
  • Analyze control vs. test
  • Assess findings and make optimization recommendations
  • Evaluate pilot program

This kind of Pilot timeline gets you live, production data early in Month 2 with initial store findings not long after. And it gets you real experience with the type of analysis, testing and continuous improvement cycle that make for effective business use.

Is it Ok to Use Location Analytics?

Yes. In-store tracking technology is already widely used. The majority of major retailers have tried it in various forms. There is an established community of interest focused on privacy and compliance in location analytics (the Future of Privacy Forum) that is supported by the major technology players (including giants like Cisco who do this routinely), major retailers, most of the vendors specific to the space, and plenty of heavy-hitters from a political standpoint. They’ve published guidelines (with input from the FTC) on how to do this. In many respects, the landscape is similar to digital. To do this right, you must have a documented and published privacy policy and you MUST adhere to your own privacy policy. If you offer an online opt-out, you must provide and honor an online opt-out. If you offer an in-store opt-out, you must provide it. To abide by the privacy standards, you must treat the visitor’s phone MAC address as PII information. You must not keep and match the visitor’s MAC address without opt-in and you should make sure that is hashed or transformed when stored.

And, of course, in the EU the tracking guidelines are significantly more restrictive.

In almost all respects, this is identical to the use of cookies in the digital world. And, as with the digital world, it’s not hard to see where the blurry lines are. Using in-store customer journey tracking to improve the store is non-controversial – the equivalent of using first-party cookies to analyze and improve a website. Using appropriately described opt-ins to track and market to identified customers is fine as long as the usage is appropriately disclosed. Selling customer information begins to touch on gray areas. And identifying and marketing to users without opt-in using any kind of device fingerprinting is very gray indeed.

Bottom line? In-store customer tracking and location analytics is ready for prime-time. The technologies work. They can be deployed reasonably and provide genuinely useful data. Deployment is non-trivial but is far from back-breaking. And the proper uses of the data are understood and widely accepted.

In my next post, I’ll take up the analytic problems that have crippled existing solutions and explain how we’ve solved them.

An Overview of In-Store Tracking Technology

How does it work? Can you really do this? Is it legal? Those are the questions that I get asked the most about in-store customer journey tracking. The same kind of questions, to be honest, I used to get fifteen years ago in digital analytics. And when you have to answer questions like these, you know it’s still pretty raw out there. Collection technologies are a core part of measurement – whether it’s tags in digital analytics or PCAP files for in-store customer tracking. Technology matters. And with in-store tracking, the data collection technologies aren’t half-baked, but they aren’t well-cooked either.

Here’s what you need to know:

Collection Technologies

There are four (!) common approaches to in-store customer tracking: camera, wifi, passive network and mobile apps. Each has distinct characteristics and at least some advantages and disadvantages. Camera is pretty easy to understand. The cameras used for in-store measurement are video. Each camera has on-board processors that identify people, “blob” them, and then track them across their field of view. This yields a stream of data that is positionally very accurate and can also identify basic demographics around each visitor. The anonymized data is then passed to a central server where systems like ours can use it.

Your existing WiFi system can also be used to track customer journey data. This works whether or not people login to your access points. Phones regularly ping out looking for a network and those pings – anonymized – can be triangulated to figure out the position. Put those pings together, and you have a journey. One of the best things about WiFi tracking is that almost everybody already has the necessary hardware in place. That means there’s no new installation; and most of the top-tier providers of internet access points make it super easy to route the data directly to your cloud-based system. Often at no additional cost.

Passive network sniffers are small WiFi-like devices designed explicitly for in-store measurement. They work on principles similar to WiFi but they solve some problems that WiFi doesn’t. They track multiple bands, not just passive WiFi pings, and they can deliver better positional accuracy because they can be deployed in very large numbers quite cost-effectively.

Lastly, you can use code inside a mobile application to track the customer journey. Mobile apps can deliver a steady stream of positional data and have the unique benefit of being able to tie that data to the customer’s digital in-app experience.

So what’s not to like?

Well, each technology has some significant issues.

Cameras are expensive, installation is a challenge, each camera only covers a small zone, and camera systems do a remarkably poor job stitching together the customer journey. So as typically delivered, camera systems cost a lot and deliver limited measurement.

WiFi isn’t very accurate positionally – meaning it can’t be used effectively for much beyond door-counting in smaller and mid-size retail spaces. Worse, changes in MAC randomization in the IoS world have essentially eliminated the ability of WiFi systems to passively track customers with Apple devices. That means you either depend on users to connect to your WiFi (which does yield stable measurement) or you only measure your Android customers. Two bad solutions don’t add up to a good one.

Passive network sniffers improve on WiFi in terms of positional accuracy and their ability to fingerprint devices. But they don’t solve those problems perfectly and, of course, they don’t give you the no-installation, no hardware cost convenience that WiFi did.

Measurement using mobile apps? That’s great, just like everything with mobile apps provided you can get customers to actually download the app. Depending on customer app downloads for measurement is inherently a limiting factor.

Bottom line? There are places and times for every technology and there are ways to combine the technologies to yield better results (we do that). But this isn’t measurement nirvana. No solution is perfect and you’ll find plenty of things to hate in any direction you choose.

To get more detail on the ins-and-outs of in-store customer journey tracking technology (and it’s complicated), ping me. I’ll send you a DM whitepaper that gives you everything you need to know to choose wisely!

I’ll tackle practicality and legality next time!