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Regent Street is to become the first shopping street in Europe to pioneer a mobile telephone app which delivers personalised promotions to visitors.

Capturing shoppers’ attention as they walk down the pavement was once a relatively simple task for high-street stores.  They relied on location, innovative presentation, and a dash of theatre, to stand out. But now, with shoppers’ shrinking attention span shorter than the average goldfish’s, and the advent of smartphone and Internet accessibility almost anywhere, the battle to capture awareness has become even tougher. So now, to compete with the existing blizzard of information, The Crown Estate, which owns Regent Street, will introduce a new smartphone application that effectively allows your favourite retailer to shout “Hey, we’re over here!” as you walk past their door.


Sceptics might see this as the technological equivalent of handing out leaflets wearing a funny costume. But this system takes advantage of location-aware beacon technology to deliver discounts, new-product promotions and other alerts to shoppers’ smartphones as they walk past stores and restaurants. The app, created by US agency autoGraph, allows users to select their shopping preferences from a list of 40 well-known brands. It then builds a profile to determine which customer gets marketing messages from which brand and distributes them via Bluetooth. Simple! But what are the downsides?

First, shoppers need to download an app to make the most of the technology – thus limiting the possibility of bringing in new customers – so recipients will already need to be somewhat engaged. Secondly, with about 100 stores along Regent Street already fitted with the technology, shoppers could be in for a disorienting and none too relaxing stroll down their favourite thoroughfare if they have selected all their top brands. I’m sure these will prove minor quibbles now, but wait until the technology becomes commonplace.

Imagine the scene. Aside from the risk of fist-fights over ‘personalized’ discounts when customers are summoned by phone like Pavlov’s dogs, pavements will become assault courses as recipients halt mid-stride to study their alerts. Avoiding those mesmerized by simply speaking on their smartphones is already bad enough, will distracted pedestrians soon be wandering into the path of oncoming traffic entranced by a must-have offer? And taken to the extreme, one can imagine the chaos on Oxford Street as great shoals of Christmas shoppers surge back and forth, pounding hither and thither, egged on by competing enticements, first from John Lewis, then House of Fraser! But I digress!

The inevitable arguments about privacy of data will eventually apply too, and we will be given the same tired assurances that our details are safe. In reality such systems can only offer really individual content if fed with enough personal data. So the trade-off is privacy versus greater convenience.  Presumably you have to opt in to this particular app, but what if all that other data captured by machines connected to the ‘Internet of Things’ begins to leak over time? Who’s going to stop all those computers talking to each other? Because, if they really are busy developing human characteristics – one’s allegedly already passed the Turing test – they will inevitably become dreadful gossips! And as Schopenhauer said, “If I maintain my silence about my secret it is my prisoner…if I let it slip from my tongue, I am ITS prisoner.”

Michael Hoare