Best Buy's Mobile Oath: Do No Privacy Harm

In a sign of the times, when Best Buy officially introduced its new mobile application on Tuesday (August 3), the key point being touted was not the app's capabilities, convenience or free price. It was that the nature of the app is such that it doesn't violate privacy.

The app itself—which is also due to be released shortly by Macy's, among other chains—comes from a vendor called Shopkick. Its approach involves devices in the store broadcasting a constant audible signal announcing that store's identification number, but nothing else. That sound—theoretically undetectable by humans—would be picked up by any mobile phones in the store, assuming those phones have the Best Buy mobile app launched.

Shopkick CEO Cyriac Roeding touts the fact that the app merely receives a signal from the store and doesn't transmit anything as a privacy-protection feature many rival offerings lack. "That's a significant difference from a privacy point of view. The user is in full control," Roeding said, adding that if consumers want to remain anonymous, they would merely choose to not launch the app while in the store.

If the app is live, though, consumers get are shown various discount coupons applicable to that particular store. (The store's identification number in that audio message is how the app knows which discounts to display.)

The plans for Best Buy and Macy's to include these mobile apps this summer aren't new, but the specific deployment details are.

A Best Buy statement, for example, says the chain "integrated Shopkick directly into its point of sale system in its San Francisco store to streamline the redemption of special offers." That's certainly true. But the POS integration is certainly not an example of mobile cutting edge.

The retailer could have allowed mobile phones to wirelessly communicate with POS at a checkout lane—or even to connect to POS from anywhere in the store—or, perhaps, to scan a barcode display on the phone. Instead, Best Buy is asking consumers to tell an associate cashier their mobile phone number, which will allow "any applicable personalized discounts [to] immediately appear on their receipt."

Beyond privacy control, the nature of the app provides no incentive for thieves, which is arguably the best defense. (Best way to defend against muggers in New York City: Being broke and really looking like it.) The multi-frequency blast of sound carries nothing beyond a store's unique code. Break that code and listen to the audio communications, and you'll learn nothing beyond the location of the store, which you presumably already knew. "It's technically extraordinarily difficult to recognize sound patterns," Shopkick's Roeding said, "but even assuming that someone did: What would they do with it?"

In the beginning phase of this mobile trial, Best Buy will keep its offers very broad—such as 10 percent off an entire product category, for everyone in that store. But the near-term plans are to use a customer's volunteered demographic details to fine-tune recommendations. No efforts thus far have been made to integrate a customer's purchase history with the mobile promotions at Best Buy, Roeding said.

Best Buy is paying Shopkick for every customer who uses the app in its stores.