Apple tracks shoppers in its stores with nationwide iBeacon rollout

With the new location service, shoppers with the Apple Store app installed could start receiving notifications as they walk past the latest iPhones

Apple is taking a closer look at shoppers in its retail stores, under a new program that will push product-related information to their mobile devices using its iBeacon trackers.

All 254 of the company's U.S. stores now employ Apple's iBeacon location services technology, Apple confirmed Friday. The iBeacon software was included in Apple's recent iOS 7 update for mobile devices like the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Compatible iBeacon hardware has since been installed throughout Apple's stores, anywhere from the front entrance to a product table sporting the latest iPads, from which it communicates with the software.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Qualcomm releases Gimbal sensors for short-range tracking. | See InfoWorld's "iOS 7 for developers" special report for the scoop on the bells and whistles in Apple's mobile OS -- and how you can harness them. | Keep up with key Apple technologies with the Technology: Apple newsletter. ]

The integration marks Apple's large-scale entrance into the hot, emerging known location- or place-based marketing field. Over the past year or so a range of smaller startups have sprung up offering services designed to gather more information about shoppers in stores to serve them hyper-targeted deals or other product information. The idea is to improve brick-and-mortar stores' ability to compete against e-commerce giants like Amazon, which already know plenty about their users' digital shopping habits.

The Apple rollout affects everyone who has the Apple Store app installed on their iOS device. Bluetooth has to be enabled on the device, because that's the underlying technology powering iBeacon. Users also have to give the app permission for the iBeacon technology to work. Once they do, they could start receiving several different types of notifications as they walk through Apple's stores.

Some of the technology's features are designed to give people additional information about certain products as they walk past them. So if shoppers are standing near the latest iPhones a notification might pop up on their phone to let them know they're eligible for an upgrade. At the accessories table, the iBeacon technology could also let people use their iOS devices to learn more about certain products.

If the person was shopping online from home and chose to pick up the item in the store, the app could also tell them that the particular product is ready when they walk inside.

More product discovery features are likely on the way.

Although some people might have come to accept it online, others might find the thought of being tracked in physical stores a bit creepy. Earlier this year Nordstrom had to suspend a Wi-Fi-based tracking program after consumers learned what the store was up to.

But Apple does not store any personal information through iBeacon, a spokesman said. The technology is designed to only work one way, from the hardware to the phone. The hardware component emits a signal and the phone recognizes it, but nothing is sent back to the hardware, the spokesman said.

Beyond improving the bottom line for its own stores, Apple hopes its iBeacon technology could usher in all sorts of applications. The technology could provide third-party apps "a whole new level of micro-location awareness, such as trail markers in a park, exhibits in a museum, or product displays in stores," Apple said in a statement.

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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