Shopping secrets revealed by wi-fi: How one startup turns wireless signals into retail smarts

With headcount still in single digits, indoor positioning startup Walkbase has landed €3m in funding and is setting its sights on Europe.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
Walkbase's analytics dashboard
Walkbase's analytics dashboard. Image: Walkbase

At this year's Slush, the Finnish startup conference held annually in November, indoor positioning upstart Walkbase announced it had landed a €3m funding round.

Among those who decided to invest in the company, founded in 2010, were Russia's biggest bank Sberbank, which has 18,000 branches across the country, and former Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo.

Kallasvuo headed Nokia from 2006 to 2010, and these days acts as an advisor and investor for small businesses. After a mutual connection made an introduction between the former Nokian and Walkbase, "he met us, he really liked the team, and said 'count me in'," Tuomas Wuoti, Walkbase's CEO, told ZDNet at Slush. 

"It's good to have people involved that have used big funding and know how to do it wisely, who have connections and like to hire the right people."

Most of the €3m will be going on hiring, according to Wuoti. The company currently has fewer than 10 staff and intends to double it to 20 by the end of the year, and to 50 by the close of 2014.

Most of these will be sales hires, who will staff the offices the company intends to open in London and Moscow. Walkbase already has customers in its native Finland, the UK and Russia — including Sberbank, which began using Walkbase's product before deciding to invest in the company.

While Russia has the advantages of proximity and a bricks and mortar shopping culture that more healthy than most, "the UK market as a whole probably has the most sophisticated retail industry, there are early adopters there that are able to use the data [Walkbase gathers] efficiently. When we work with advanced brands, we learn the most ourselves, and that's part of reason," according to Wuoti.

Wi-fi tracking

Walkbase's indoor positioning tech is typically used by businesses with large numbers of physical stores — banks, casinos, airports and retailers in industries including automotive and fashion businesses.

Walkbase's sensors can be plugged in in shops to monitor the movements of consumers around the premises. By tracking phones' wi-fi signals — detecting the origin of the signal down to within 3m and 5m — Walkbase can produce aggregate, anonymised patterns of movement, to show clients where shoppers lingered, skipped past or made a purchase.

"If you're having a marketing event over a weekend, you want to see if people came of course, but you also want to know how long they spent there, and did they come back afterwards — how many people from the marketing event came again after two weeks, and did they go to other locations or just that location, stuff like that," Wuoti says.

The CEO cites the example of one Russian cosmetics chain that had recently overhauled the interiors of its stores, based on research which had previously found the average customer around spent 28 minutes in store per visit. With Walkbase installed in one in five of its stores, the retailer discovered that consumers were actually spending more like between eight and 12 minutes. After some effort to find out who was responsible for the snafu, the chain began remaking its stores in line with the new data, adjusting shops to the shorter visit times.

Since it began life three years ago, Walkbase has tracked 13 million customers. Though the system is based on following consumers' wi-fi, Walkbase says it doesn't give its customers individual's movements, conflate it with consumers' personal information, or gather details beyond the manufacturer of the phone, which is not provided to its customers in any case.

The service will no doubt raise privacy concerns among some shoppers. The company offers an opt-out option on its website, while chains using the service also carry signage to let shoppers know Walkbase is used on the premises, and inform staff about the system should customers have questions.

As well as showing retailers data such as where the customers have been — and whether they looked in the window without coming in — through a proprietary dashboard, Walkbase also sells services on top. The company has an insights team which helps companies make sense of the data, show how it benchmarks against other companies in the same sector, or make suggestions for improvements.

The company has opened up its API to developers and Walkbase data can also be outputted to other analytics systems, such as Google Analytics.


In future, the system could focus on how retailers can make the most of showrooming — the trend for customers to browse for products in shops, then compare prices and buy the same item online. "The first version is to measure and optimise, the second layer is to influence the customer," Wuoti says. "We have a few things we're testing with customers on that side, which are still under development."

Turku, Finland-based Walkbase is now working with marketing agencies and others on how companies can monitor and develop their online and offline environments in concert.

"Retailers they shouldn't see online and offline as separate, they should see it as one, they can complement each other.  If they have different departments running offline and online, they can actually start to cannibalise each other — bring them together," Wuoti says.

As for what else lies in the future, more industries and more geographies are under consideration.

Walkbase has received approaches from sectors including oil, where platforms are considering tracking their staff for safety reasons, enabling them to be located in case of an industrial accident, and office management, where the movement of workers can be used to inform the buildings' systems — heating and lighting systems could be switched off in certain areas at times when staff aren't using them, for example.

While the sectors are interesting for the company and there are some experiments ongoing in new sectors, according to Wuoti, there's no plans at the moment to move beyond the industries it's currently targeting.

Similarly, while Finland, Russia and the UK will be drawing the bulk of the company's attention for the foreseeable future, China or the US could one day get a Walkbase office: "Maybe series B  — I think that will be the staging point when we look to China or the US," Wuoti says.

The company still remains largely owned by its founders, three of whom met at Åbo Akademi where they were developing the IPR they put to work at Walkbase (Wuoti studied entrepreneurship at a Turku university). Having a workforce in single digits and all four founders still at the company, Walkbase is still maintaining its startup feel, even with the planned expansion that will grow its headcount fivefold.

"We have quite a crazy agile methodology — don't sleep!" Wuoti jokes. "We work with a 'work smart' methodology — if you are too tired, and can't get productive stuff done, don't do it. Go home, go to the gym, do something, spend the afternoon with your girlfriend. But when we need to crunch, we crunch 24/7."

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