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Swarm 'Portal' beacon to provide retailers insight on in-store activity

The device picks up heat signals from shoppers to give retailers foot traffic patterns

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For small retailers, the relationship between the number of store visits and actual sales can be foggy. A new tracking device aims to provide clarity.

On Thursday the in-store data startup Swarm launched "Portal," a small device that brick-and-mortar stores can install at their entrance to track how many people actually set foot inside. The device constitutes another piece of technology in the hot industry of in-store tracking or retail analytics, as physical retailers clamor for useful data to better compete against Amazon and other e-commerce sites.

Swarm's Portal is aimed at small to medium-sized businesses, which are also competing against big box retailers like Walmart that may have their own in-store technology. Portal uses an infrared laser beam to pick up heat signals from people's bodies as they walk by the store. With a sensitivity of 5 to 6 feet, it can potentially show walk-bys or window shoppers versus those who enter the store. And of those who enter the store, it can let store owners know how many actually made a purchase, by integrating with their point-of-sale systems.

Infrared technology is not new for retailers, as it's often integrated into security systems. The company ShopperTrack, meanwhile, has been capturing walk-by traffic in malls for years.

But the data provided by Portal is designed to help smaller stores manage their business by providing new information that could be used for decision-making around inventory or staffing. "It's like Nest for retail shops," said Rudd Davis, CEO and co-founder at Swarm, referring to the smart thermostat company for efficient home energy use.

"Most small businesses don't have a way of tracking foot traffic in their stores," Davis said. There's no easy way to get it, and then organize it, he added.

For a single fee of US$79.99, Portal exports basic foot traffic data to its mobile app used by the retailer, which is synced with Swarm's system in the cloud. If retailers want to integrate the app with their point-of-sale system, or look at more types of data like shopper dwell time, they have to pay for a monthly subscription at $39.99 or $79.99, respectively.

Customers don't need to be carrying a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth-equipped smartphone to be picked up by Portal. But the data is anonymous, Davis said, because it's just heat that's picked up, not images or personally identifiable information about shoppers. Privacy is an issue that other retailers like Nordstrom have had to grapple with as they've experimented with new forms of in-store tracking.

Retailers do have the option to integrate Portal into their own loyalty apps for consumers. Those that do could potentially send targeted offers to shoppers as they walk into the store, and link purchases to specific people.

So far roughly 10,000 retailers across the U.S. and in other countries including New Zealand, Spain and Mexico have placed orders for Portal, Swarm's Davis said. The list includes clothing retailer Taylor Stitch, the Frye footwear company and the O'Neill surfing equipment brand.

Swarm's first product is an analytics system that detects Wi-Fi pings from shoppers' phones. The San Francisco-based company, which launched in 2012, should not be confused with Foursquare's newly launched Swarm consumer app for location sharing.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com



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