When it comes to using technology to track shoppers in stores, Simon Property Group, the biggest U.S. mall owner, is "treading very, very carefully," according to Chief Executive Officer David Simon.
"We've looked at it all, but the fact of the matter is until the folks in Washington feel good about it, we are watching it and we're not really playing in any of that stuff, because we really don't know what kind of privacy violations it may generate," he said on an earnings call Monday in response to a UBS analyst's question about whether Simon Property was utilizing new technology to collect customer data and analyze shopper traffic patterns. "We're treading very, very carefully and have done nothing along the lines that would be able to track anything like that, period, end of story."
Simon Property is the biggest U.S. owner of regional malls and outlet centers, including Woodbury Common, which by itself brings in more than $1.3 billion in annual sales.
Brick-and-mortar retailers' use of new technologies to track customers in stores, including following Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones, has become a hot-button issue after a front-page New York Times story earlier this month detailed the practice, which typically occurs unbeknownst to shoppers. Shortly after that story ran, the Washington-based research group, the Future of Privacy Forum, said it plans to set up guidelines for the responsible use of "retail location analytics."
Companies such as Nomi, Euclid Analytics and RetailNext, use video footage and Wi-Fi signals to track customers, helping retailers make decisions about store layouts or customized coupons. They argue that it's a way for physical stores to keep up with online retailers, though shoppers have bristled at the lack of transparency, particularly as government surveillance becomes a major concern.
Update - July 30, 2:55 p.m. EDT: "Simon and our retailer clients each use a variety of opt-in consumer technologies such as Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter to engage and connect with our customers," Les Morris, a spokesman for Simon Property, said in an e-mail. "We respect the importance of protecting consumer privacy and are focused on providing the information our customers tell us they want about our shopping destinations, retailers, restaurants and entertainment venues, and the wide variety of events we offer for their benefit."