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Watch Where You're Going

By Technology Review

November 9, 2010

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Target must make some people hungry, because a quarter of its shoppers head from the store to a restaurant. Another 25 percent or so eat out before their shopping trip. So maybe Target should capture some extra revenue by selling meals right on the premises. Or perhaps it could do a cross-promotion with neighboring food establishments.

The numbers aren't guesses. Nor are they estimates based on customer surveys taken after the fact. They're actual measurements of where and when a sample of people spent their time, garnered by pinging the GPS receivers on their mobile phones. New services are popping up that track people in real time to give businesses a more detailed picture of consumer habits than ever before. The new tracking services go beyond location-based apps such as Foursquare, which require users to actively check in. Rather, these startups connect the dots of where you go without your doing anything at all.

In the past, this kind of location data could be obtained only by asking or paying consumers to fill out surveys. Even then, people might not remember exactly where they went after shopping at Target, or they might give the answers that they thought the questioner wanted to hear. They might not even know the answers to some questions, such as how often they were in range of a certain supermarket or whether they'd passed by any ATMs.

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