How Retailers are Using Location Awareness Technology to Track Buyers’ Habits

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How Retailers are Using Location Awareness Technology to Track Buyers’ Habits


Location tracking has been in use for a lot longer than one may expect. For example, military Special Forces and intelligence organizations have been using trackers and tracers for decades. Auto theft recovery services such as LoJack have offered real-time tracking of vehicles to discourage theft. Tracking collars and ankle bracelets have also been widely used to assess the whereabouts of high-risk defendants. And animal study groups have put tracers on animals to study their migration patterns.

But the recent flourishing use of smartphones, tablets, cellular networks and Wi-Fi has made location awareness technology accessible to just about everyone. ABI Research forecasts that indoor location technology alone will be a $4 billion market by 2018*, and device makers with the most advanced solutions will be the key players.

Location awareness technology, in fact, no longer depends on embedded GPS. While several low-cost and flexible modular and monolithic GPS solutions have been introduced, cell tower location resolution has improved and rivals traditional GPS technology. Several techniques are in use, including signal strength measurements at different cell towers, time-to-reception differences, phase differences and central office algorithms that can determine if a user is in a moving car or sitting in a house. Resolution is so accurate that satellite imagery overlaid with location data can not only show a person in a house, but also show what room of the house that person is in.

Location awareness and the Internet of Things

Conjuring up ways to use these new pieces of information, clever applications are emerging that tie together seemingly disjoint pieces of information, especially as the Internet of Things connects devices locally and globally. For example, a Bluetooth-enabled refrigerator could sense that milk is running low, then query the location of its owner and make a determination that he/she is heading home and will pass a convenience store. It can then send a text, email, or voice mail alert that lets the owner know to stop and pick up more milk. In a similar way, a smart pantry could alert a homeowner to pick up diapers. Location awareness technology can also be used to tell a user where the nearest hospital is if a wearable medical sensor detects the onset of a serious condition.

OnStar and similar automotive security navigation systems can already locate a vehicle and understand if that vehicle was in an accident. This technology is two-way enabled, allowing the user to communicate with the system and vice versa. This technology is quickly becoming much more involved. New cars are coming right out of the showroom with 4G cellular services and are enabled to serve as a hot spot for mobile phone, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Users should expect 5G connectivity soon.

Using Big Data to track habits

Recently, location-based technology has expanded to take on an increasingly prominent role in retail applications, allowing retailers and advertisers to use location sensing to suggest products or services to consumers. Online retailers already use search engine cookies to track your searches and buying habits, thus enabling them to target consumers with advertisements that are unique to their interests and buying patterns. Similarly, companies are trying to figure out how to monetize location-based data from smartphones, tablets, and connected networks.

Everywhere we go we are providing a stream of data to one or more groups looking to sell something, or even sell information about users to someone else. And, these companies often don’t even need to ask cell phone providers for permission to use this data. When we install or update programs, we give over the right for others to access our files and information, oftentimes clicking “accept” without even reading the terms. Companies are now learning how to monetize this information.

Combined with other data, such as age, gender, past purchases, preferences and orientations, consumers can be targeted for products and services that may be beneficial, but may also be irrelevant. Advertisement kiosks can act as cellular transponders to identify nearby cell network users. Consumer preferences can then be downloaded from the cloud and advertisements can share information about sales or specials that are just ahead.

Piecing it together

Independent systems that may or may not have constant connectivity will most likely depend on GPS for reliable location awareness. Several manufacturers provide reference designs and modular solutions to get started with this approach. Microchip’s Machine-to-Machine (M2M) PICtail Daughter Board supports the company’s PIC32 processors. As either a reference design or an OEM module, true GPS based location awareness is in reach.

Microchip also makes the M2M Development Platform for CDMA which is pre-certified on the Verizon network and includes Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), ZigBee, Ethernet, GPS and accelerometers.

Fig. 1: This M2M Development platform aims at CDMA designs with location awareness technology, but also includes ZigBee and Ethernet connectivity, GPS, on board temperature and accelerometer, two expansion connections for customization and support for a micro SD card. (Source: Microchip)

When applications already house 3G, 4G or 5G connectivity, more-precise geolocation is available at lower cost, using both a smaller footprint and less power. Chipmakers are blazing a path with parts, reference designs and development resources that feature location-aware embedded intelligence.

Broadcom’s 5G WiFi BCM4362 SoC has integrated the company’s new AccuLocate technology, which delivers pinpoint indoor positioning and submeter accuracy on physical locations. This technology takes direct aim at retailers, advertisers and public spaces to deliver more personalized experiences to consumers.

Fig. 2: Next-generation 5G services will use Wi-Fi for precise pinpoint locations, using less power and providing advertisers and retailers a moving, but still hittable, target. (Source: Broadcom)

*Apple Just One of Many Big Guns Entering $4 Billion Indoor Location Market. (2013, October 16). Retrieved from

Written By: Jon Gabay


How Retailers are Using Location Awareness Technology to Track Buyers’ Habits

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