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Has Canada's Turnstyle Solutions changed retail forever?

The Toronto-based company tracks customers' in-store habits and shopping patterns, providing analytics to their brick and mortar businesses.
Turnstyle's co-founding crew. From left to right: Matt Hunter, Devon Wright, and Chris Gilpin.
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Why go to the building when you've got the URL?

It's a fair question. It's one consumers ask, but largely because they want it answered. Amazon or iBooks gives you what you used to drive to Chapters or Barnes & Noble for, but there's something to be said for going out, for actually shopping, or for living.

Stores want foot traffic and they need it. But consumers need a reason to go. They also want to interact and they want to eat, drink, and be merry.

That's where Turnstyle comes in.

"The kind of disadvantage that brick and mortar has (compared to) e-commerce isn't just convenience," says Devon Wright, founder and CEO of the Toronto-based company. "E-comm has tons of information on customers, a better structure the way they're laid out.

"The real-world guys just don't have that yet. You go off your gut, might have some loyalty programs, but those are only available to the largest players."

Turnstyle Solutions was founded in 2013 by Wright and the company's two other co-founders, Chris Gilpin and Matt Hunter. The company developed hardware that is installed onto a store's router and, when customers enter the store, their phones search for a WiFi network, letting loose an anonymous 12-digit identifier known as the MAC address. Turnstyle gathers the phone's MAC and can track the signal and its owner inside the store, turning their results into analytics for brands, businesses, and retailers.

Turnstyle's clients – vendors and retailers – are given a dashboard to monitor their foot traffic's analytics, and can interact and send notifications to their customers via Push, text, and email.

The goal, for businesses – aka Turnstyle's clients, which range from brands like Sapporo and Sleeman to a variety of small businesses in Toronto – is to give them a better understanding of who their customers are and what they're looking for.

Why do they come to the store, the restaurant, or the venue? And what they do when they get there? Where do they go, what do they browse, and what do they buy? Are they new, or have they been there before?

"Bars and restaurants can't sell their products online," Wright said. "For the most part, most of it is foot traffic and will always be. You're not going to see bars and restaurants and music or live festivals die.

"How do we take what we have learned and then use that in the real world?

"Right now, there's a lot of technology available, but there's just no one tapping into that data."

The goal then, for consumers, is to give them a better experience with their trusted brands. To honour their loyalty and to help them interact with the ones selling the goods on the shelves.

Turnstyle's crew (in interviews like the one with Chris Gilpin above) has said they envision the future of in-person business to be one where physical customers are given the same advantages, convenience, and streamlined experience that online customers are, and even then some.

"Turnstyle was founded out of the idea that we wanted to attract music fans and venues for a band," Wright says, "to use that to distribute and redistribute merchandise and tickets.

Wright and his Turnstyle co-founder Matt Hunter have their own band, a venture which helped them formulate their idea. They left their banking jobs in 2012 to found and focus on their company.

Their audience is now also their target market.

"If a band is able to distribute tickets to their best fans, or if it helps a fan get connected to the band you love... people should get excited," Wright says. "This sort of technology could make your life a lot easier.

"Everyone likes to be better connected to the brands they love."

Turnstyle has grown, perhaps a little slowly but most definitely surely. The company gained traction in its first couple years, finally getting some "credibility in the Canadian scene" through a Globe and Mail article in 2013 and then by joining the Future of Privacy Forum, agreeing to a digital Code of Conduct along with a group of analytics companies and U.S. Senator (New York) Charles E. Schumer.

Wright calls joining the privacy forum "the best thing we could have done".

And this year, early in 2014, Turnstyle's popularity exploded.

In the past few weeks, the company has been featured on major American and Canadian television networks, including CBS's This Morning with Charlie Rose, FOX Business, and on CBC's Lang & O'Leary Exchange.

"It was certainly a little overwhelming," Wright says of TV's Turnstyle coverage this year. "You never really put it in perspective while it's happening. Now we realize it was a huge opportunity.

"You kind of coop yourself away in this office in Toronto and you assume you're building some big idea, and then all of a sudden, you poke your head up and you realize, we're actually doing something that's changing the world, thinking the way people think about their physical space."

Turnstyle Crew

Wright says Turnstyle is always looking for funding, and expansion continues with re-seller networks now in Europe, the United States, South America, and Asia.

"There's little pockets everywhere," Wright says. "We're trying to raise money and grow... connecting ourselves to more customer-based media. There's a big demand for some customers to be a part of it."

Naturally, privacy is a topic Turnstyle is used to talking about. Any time you tell someone their phone is being tracked or located, you're going to get concerns and you're going to get doubters. (Stuff like this doesn't help, either.)

"These worries, you have to consider them," Wright says. "It would be nice to think about some of the positives that are possible, and you don't hear a lot about that."

Turnstyle allows its stores' customers to opt out or delete their MAC address if they want. Or, customers can take it to the next level and can go full in for Turnstyle's services, checking in with their favourites stories, spots, or brands via Facebook, Twitter, or a phone number.

That's an advantage to the retailers, obviously, and it's meant to cater to the customer as well, says Wright.

"The retailer then has a way to connect to you and know who it is that's coming 10 times and not just someone who's coming 10 times," he says.

"You're going to see a massive uptick in terms of what programs can exist and the exciting way people can take part and be recognized.

"Not having to check-in or punch a card or do anything physically, your retailers can react to that. Let's check him in, let's give him a free dinner. Retailers are excited to do it, but it's just expensive and it's difficult to do (without this technology)."

2014 has been the company's biggest year to-date, says Wright, and the company's now-international online persona has been a confidence-booster, a way to think past Turnstyle's Toronto city limits while pushing the company to clients anywhere in the world.

"It gave us motivation to think big and not think Canadian about this," Wright says of the company's TV attention.

"I think, specifically in Canada, we're kind of encouraged not to think too big. That's the worst thing you can get. You just have to think huge, even if that doesn't get done then at least you're already halfway there.

"Any competition that comes up, you don't have an edge if you're not innovative."

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