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Dec 10

I read an interesting article at NYTimes Blogs about Apple’s Spot-the-Shopper Technology

The article claims that Apple’s system “has had the ability to show the in-store location of a shopper who has come to pick up a purchase”.

How does this work?

I don’t have any insider knowledge of how this system works, so this post is just my speculations. I know that I have very smart readers, so I’m curious to know what you think.

First let’s tackle the easier problem of knowing when a customer arrives at the store. Here are some ideas of this could work.

The Apple Store app could use a mechanism that is similar to the location reindeers in the Reminders app. As soon as the app realizes that the phone is in the vicinity of the Apple Store it sends a message to Apple. GPS is usually not very accurate indoors, but combined with Apple’s database of WiFi hotspots (I’m sure the Apple Store WiFi locations are in their database) it should be accurate enough to provide an alert.
The Apple Store app sends the MAC address of the WiFi network interface in the customer’s device to Apple. As soon as the device tries to connect to the Apple Store network, the MAC address is detected and the system is alerted that the customer has arrived.

Neither mechanism is foolproof. If the customer’s device is in airplane mode, for example, then I can’t think of any mechanism that would work. Since Apple is not advertising this functionality, it doesn’t have to work every time. But each time it does and a customer is delighted by the experience, it’s a win.

Now to the more difficult problem (I think) of locating a customer in the store.

The article shows an iPod touch with a map of the store and locations of people who have requested help highlighted in red.

For iPads with “help buttons” that are part of the store’s fixed display, it’s of course easy to place them on a map and highlight the location when someone asks for help.

But what about customers who have arrived to pick up a purchase? I can’t imagine that GPS is accurate enough inside a store inside a mall to pinpoint a customer.

I wonder if it’s possible for the WiFi access points inside the store to triangulate the location of a given MAC address with enough precision?

Have you experienced this system first hand? Were the Apple employees able to find you in the crowd?

Comments are open.

written by Nick \\ tags:

2 Responses to “Apple’s Spot-the-Shopper Technology”

  1. iamleeg Says:

    Having recently discussed a similar system in the office, we think they probably use CCTV cameras. Once they know that someone is in, they can notify the security back-office to look on the cameras. It makes it a bit less ‘magical’ to think that there’s a mechanical Turk in there, but it’s probably how it works.

  2. Thomas Says:

    For the in-store pickup, wouldn’t it be possible that every product on the shelves have some kind of RFID chip that can be detected by the store ? In that case, they can “alert” security if a product is moving, but has not been marked as purchased. Therefore no need to follow the purchaser phone.

    For the request help button, it’s very simple : Apple keeps a database of their customer pictures (every time you use your iPhone camera…). When you request help it sends your device ID, and Apple Geniuses receive your photo on their iPad

    I’m joking of course, but I know (and experienced) the “old” way : you arrive at a store, a cool looking guy asks you if he can help. You give him some details and he writes a description of you as well (me was like : “tall blond guy in black coat”). Asks my name and leave. Then a cool looking girl came to me about 15 minutes later : “Thomas ? Someone is going to help you with that iPhone problem”. Pretty low tech but amazing.

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