The License Plate Loyalty Card

Written by Evan Schuman
June 11th, 2009

A red 2009 Mercedes S600 pulls into the overflow parking lot of Mall of America, zooming by without notice some light poles with mounted video cameras and some wireless readers. After parking, the driver and two passengers get out and walk into a mall entrance.

When the driver walks into the Nordstrom location, text alerts have told associates that he’s the driver of a red 2009 S600. The scanner he walked by recognized his cell phone’s unique identifier number as the same one that exited the Mercedes, which had its license plate number automatically logged as well. When he purchases a dress shirt 20 minutes later with his Visa card, the system can now attach a name (and the purchase of that shirt) to that license plate and that cell phone. If that customer happens to use a loyalty card, his complete purchase history is then associated with the car and his phone.

But while there, he also drops by the Macy’s at the mall and walks out empty-handed, but the store manager learns why in about two hours. His car is spotted three miles away having driven to a direct Macy’s rival and made his electronics purchase there instead.

That scenario is not science fiction. It’s possible today using the same license plate reading (LPR) technology that law enforcement has been using for years. The equipment is now available to the general public and market research firms working for major retail chains have already started buying the equipment and testing its limits. They haven’t found many.

The devices are small infra-red cameras, selling today for about $22,000, that can instantly photograph, digitize and look up information about license plates. What makes the retail applications practical are advances in the technology.

About ten years ago, the typical LPR camera and gear cost about $150,000, was so big that it occupied the full trunk of a police cruiser and couldn’t track a license plate when the vehicle-mounted camera was moving faster than 5 miles-per-hour, said Andy Bucholz, who designed one of the earliest LPR units and received the first funding to deploy it for law enforcement, courtesy of a contract with the U.S. Department of Justice. Today, Bucholz serves on the board of directors of G2Tactics.

Today, though, that same device can be handheld, costs about $22,000 and can accurately image the license when driving as fast as 180 miles-per-hour, he said. “That means that you can be driving 70 MPH and pass a car going in the opposite direction at 70 MPH and capture it, day or night.”

Police have been using the systems to log where cars are parked and driving all over the country. The idea is that the data is saved for as long as possible. Then, when a major crime is being investigated, if the detectives are lucky, that data could prove who was where when, long before anyone knew that a crime was going to happen. Murder suspects can deny they ever associated with a victim, only to be confronted with footage of them having repeatedly parked in front of their house six months earlier.

Law enforcement can select an address and look at any cars that were at or near that location during a particular time period and they can also search for a particular car and see every place it was seen. If they’re trying to prove an association, they can search for two cars and ask the system if those two vehicles have ever been spotted near each other.

That’s all well and good for law enforcement, but how does this play into retail?


9 Comments | Read The License Plate Loyalty Card

  1. Bryan Larkin Says:

    Ok, so you can’t drive to the store because they’ll link you to your car. Your phone already tells everyone who you are. You can’t walk to the store without you cell phone because facial recognition or “gait/walk” recognition will get you. You can’t shop on line because that is the easiest way to track you.

    And people were up in arms about RFID tags on clothing????

  2. Chakri Says:

    A similar practice is in place in London (for a different reason). Where a local store Tesco scans cars that are parked over an hour (some stores more than 3hrs) and sends parking fine. Let us if they use this to attract shoppers.

  3. Tim Says:

    This is really scary stuff. Am I the only one that has an issue with privacy? The thought of various stores all around the area knowing where I am and what I’m buying at any moment sends shivers down my spine. This is Big Brother at it’s worse.

  4. roo Says:

    The day I determine that a retailer does the stuff described here is the last day I go to that retailer.

  5. Deborah Says:

    Forget the license plate – the mobile phone is the key to tracking the consumer’s movements. Until the consumer uses his/her phone to process a payment for a purchase transaction, Retailer 1 (Macy’s or whoever) does not know that the consumer bought anything at Retailer 2.

    Think carefully about what you want flowing through the nifty phone of yours. No one promised you privacy when bought it. It’s likely the case that those handy apps are both a curse and a blessing.

  6. Marty Says:

    Sounds like the physical version of what you reported Sears being “smacked” for…on 6/7/2009…was this your “inspiration”? Enjoyed the article though…thanks!

  7. Kenneth Says:

    one of the keys to successful retail marketing has to be non intrusive and providing value. In the e-commerce world there is always a balancing act of personalization versus mass promotion. In the web world the amount of data collected is huge once a consumer touches the site, in the physical world we are starting to see that level of data collection as technology improves.

    This reminds me of an old story I was told once. A man takes clothes to dry cleaner, and next time he parks his car and walks in, the owner already pulling his clothes before seeing his ticket. He asks how the owner knows that was him since he isn’t a “regular” and pulled the clothes without checking the ticket. The owner showed him a PC under counter which he has tied license plates to ticket numbers if they are parked in front of the store in the 15 minute zone.

    It is always a debate between privacy and personalized service.

  8. Payments Expert Says:

    In Sydney in Australia they have completely eliminated the plastic wireless responders at Tolls – recognition technology automatically per the article links license plates to payment of tolls. Tourists hiring a car can simply make a call and link a credit card to their hire care license plate for a given period of time. Very simple and quick.

    This means every toll road can be automated – massive impact in streamlining traffic flow.

    If this could be applied in the US, it would not only save millions of hours in avoiding tollgate delays, but also energy consumed in stopping/starting, blood pressure and frustrations reduction but also increase revenues for toll systems by increased use – savings could be passed to consumers (as if that will happen ;-)

    Far more convenient that sitting in traffic for 30 mins waiting for traffic at a sporting event to clear or due to someone sifting into their glove compartment for hidden money after dropping their quarters into the drain at the tollgate by accident….

  9. Toll payer Says:

    License plate tolls have been implemented in the United States. The E-470 Public Highway Authority in Colorado has been doing this since 2009 or earlier.

    I preferred stopping to pay tolls so I didn’t have to deal with E-470’s buggy online payment system. If their Web site wasn’t so awful, license plate tolls would be great.


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