Tracking Shoppers with Wi-Fi and RTLS

Friday Dec 5th 2008 by Jeff Goldman

Finnish home improvement retailer Rautakesko, is using Wi-Fi and Ekahau’s RTLS system to track customer behavior in its retail stores.

For the past several months, the Finnish home improvement retailer Rautakesko has been using Wi-Fi RTLS solutions from Ekahau to capture key data on its customers’ shopping patterns. Upon entering a store, customers are offered an RTLS tag to carry with them while shopping, which then transmits location data throughout their visit.

Tuomo Rutanen, Ekahau’s vice president of business development, says the fact that his company’s tags use a standard Wi-Fi network makes Ekahau’s solution particularly attractive to a retailer like Rautakesko. “Retailers are increasingly putting Wi-Fi into their stores because they need it for a variety of different applications, from barcode scanning to voice,” he says.

And from Ekahau’s perspective, Rutanen says, the Rautakesko deployment is relatively straightforward. “It goes back to the basics of what the Ekahau system can do, which is to track the location of objects using Wi-Fi as the reader network, and having the ability then to pinpoint that location down to a relatively precise measurement, within a couple of meters,” he says.

Tracking people

Of course, in Rautakesko’s case, the objects being tracked are people. “With the ability to look at where people go in the store, what are the things that they’re stopping to look at, what are the aisles or endcaps in the store that people frequent the most, it gives them an idea, a fingerprint, of what people are doing,” Rutanen says.

Think of it, he says, like a tracking cookie for a Web site. “You can go back and look at what pages people are looking at on your Web site, and from that, ascertain what’s interesting on your Web site and what’s not—and then those pages that don’t get a lot of clicks you obviously want to revise,” Rutanen says.

Ekahau’s patented “rail tracking” technology, Rutanen says, is key to implementing that kind of system in a store. “If we look at a floor map of a retail store, we use the rails to indicate to the program what the valid pathways are along which shopping carts can travel… so we don’t locate people onto shelves and things like that and throw off location,” he says.

A graphic representation

The result is a clear graphic representation of traffic patterns in the form of heat maps. “We can create some very simple, easy to understand reports and visualizations of what the behavior is like in the store,” Rutanen says. “And that can be looked at during a time of day, during a day, during a week, whatever time period—and it can also be mapped into demographics.”

The heat map format, Rutanen says, simplifies what could otherwise be an unnecessarily confusing list of data. “This could be reams and reams and reams of spreadsheet numbers which don’t paint a picture for you—but this basically takes a snapshot in time and shows you what’s happening in the store,” he says.rautakesko_sm.jpg

And the retailer can then get a clear sense of what areas are most popular. “That then tells you if you’ve got a product section that’s hot, where people spend a lot of time, and then you can turn around and go back to your vendors and charge more for that space in the store—or market that space that’s heavily trafficked to other vendors,” Rutanen says.

Other retail applications

Other applications for retail, Rutanen says, could include tracking the average length of time spent in line at checkout, then staffing the store accordingly. “It’ll give you a good idea of when you need to have more people at checkouts to make sure that people get processed through quickly,” he says.

A store could also easily use the same system to track handheld RFID scanners. “The system lends itself to tracking those items, and you don’t even need a physical tag—we can track them over the 802.11, because they have 802.11 radios in them… and we’re talking handheld units that run anywhere from $1,000 to over $3,000 apiece,” Rutanen says.

Ekahau is also working with other retailers, Rutanen says, on installing the tags on shopping carts along with a button, which the customer can press to request assistance—and a store associate can then simply locate that customer anywhere in the store using the Ekahau system. “You can press the button and continue shopping, and somebody will come and find you,” he says.

Looking forward

The vast majority of Rautakesko’s customers, Rutanen says, haven’t been worried about privacy. “The information is anonymous, so the consumer doesn’t lose anything from a privacy perspective—and the data is all aggregated anonymously, so an individual shopper’s information is not really looked at,” he says.

Rutanen says the system has now been implemented in over half a dozen of Rautakesko’s stores, with the intention of doing so throughout the chain. “They’re continuing to do this in other locations, and they’re opening up more stores: it’s also an outfit that’s continually expanding… so they’re just trying to collect the data and look at how to better do their store layouts,” he says.

And the same solution, Rutanen points out, could easily be implemented in a number of other markets, including hospitals, museums, theme parks, and more. “We could use this in any type of venue or facility where you get a lot of people coming and going… we definitely see a huge market opportunity here, and I think we’re only scratching the surface so far,” he says.

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. He lives and works in southern California.

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