What Secrets Your Phone Is Sharing About You

The Wall Street Journal
By ELIZABETH DWOSKIN

Fan Zhang, the owner of Happy Child, a trendy Asian restaurant in downtown Toronto, knows that 170 of his customers went clubbing in November. He knows that 250 went to the gym that month, and that 216 came in from Yorkville, an upscale neighborhood.

And he gleans this information without his customers’ knowledge, or ever asking them a single question.

Mr. Zhang is a client of Turnstyle Solutions Inc., a year-old local company that has placed sensors in about 200 businesses within a 0.7 mile radius in downtown Toronto to track shoppers as they move in the city.

The sensors, each about the size of a deck of cards, follow signals emitted from Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones. That allows them to create portraits of roughly 2 million people’s habits as they have gone about their daily lives, traveling from yoga studios to restaurants, to coffee shops, sports stadiums, hotels, and nightclubs.

“Instead of offering a general promotion that may or may not hit a nerve, we can promote specifically to the customer’s taste,” says Mr. Zhang. He recently emblazoned workout tank-tops with his restaurant’s logo, based on the data about his customers’ gym visits.

Turnstyle is at the forefront of a movement to track consumers who are continuously broadcasting their location from phones. Other startups, such as San Francisco-based Euclid Analytics Inc., use sensors to analyze foot-traffic patterns, largely within an individual retailer’s properties to glean insight about customer behavior.

Their success speaks to the growing value of location data. Verizon Wireless last year began crunching its own location information from customers to help retailers see which neighborhoods shoppers arrived from or limited information about their habits, such as restaurants they drive past. Apple Inc. recently released its iBeacon technology, which can be integrated into sensors to read customer’s smartphone signals in brick-and-mortar stores.

But Turnstyle is among the few that have begun using the technology more broadly to follow people where they live, work and shop. The company’s dense network of sensors can track any phone that has Wi-Fi turned on, enabling the company to build profiles of consumers lifestyles.

Turnstyle’s weekly reports to clients use aggregate numbers and don’t include people’s names. But the company does collect the names, ages, genders, and social media profiles of some people who log in with Facebook to a free Wi-Fi service that Turnstyle runs at local restaurants and coffee shops, including Happy Child. It uses that information, along with the wider foot traffic data, to come up dozens lifestyle categories, including yoga-goers, people who like theater, and hipsters.

A business that knows which sports team is most favored by its clients could offer special promotions on game days, says Turnstyle’s 27-year-old founder Chris Gilpin. Czehoski, a local restaurant, hired an ’80s-music DJ for Friday nights after learning from Turnstyle that more than 60% of the restaurant’s Wi-Fi-enabled customers were over 30.

Read More