You're Being Spied On When You Shop, But What Did You Expect?

Attention shoppers: physical-brick and-mortar retail stores are taking a cue from online retail to use surveillance to infer demographics for products and consumers; they’re watching you and improving their business. While this has worried many customers in an Edward Snowden-era world, businesses aren’t violating any customer rights, they’re merely using the information we’ve been giving them for years to maximize their business. Granted, it’s still a little creepy, but was bound to happen.

The dawn of online retail, like Amazon.com, certainly put a damper on the traditional experience of physically going to a brick-and-mortar retail store to purchase directly. It’s not simply the convenience of clicking on a computer, though. Online retail was able to capitalize on inferring demographics and targeting consumers.

Websites are able to access patterns via “cookies”, bits of data between obtained by a website from the end-user's web browser, to make recommendations based on patterns. When it comes to shopping, a single purchase can now bring up recommendations for other products, sales, etc. This has been difficult to achieve in the actual world until now.

Nordstrom is a perfect example of the new consumer surveillance. The clothing retail chain teamed up with a tech company, Euclid Analytics, that has developed an operation that tracks customers with mobile devices which automatically make requests to Nordstrom's wi-fi connection. Since these mobile devices have unique signals, they can be tracked within the store, and traced to specific aisles and products. Now, this can’t determine everything about the owner of the mobile device, but that’s where old-time video surveillance comes in.

Retail stores have used video surveillance for a long time to prevent theft or apprehend shoplifters. Nowadays, video surveillance can provide the eyes to the wi-fi tracking for a system that not only identifies mobile patterns of consumers in the store, but the gender and other physical attributes of the consumers as they shop for specific products. For a business, the more data known about consumers, the better for determining marketing strategies; understandably, consumers are uneasy.

Nordstrom has received some negative feedback from the surveillance, but there is no data to suggest that this has hurt its sales at all. The development of this consumer surveillance system on a brick-and-mortar level doesn’t create options, it only solidifies the role of data in everyday shopping.

The difference between the NSA scandal and this practice is that the NSA collection of large amounts of data seemed unprecedented. On the other hand, having wi-fi and video cameras are normal practices for many retail businesses. Even retaining footage (lengths differing for different businesses) is not a new practice. The only new development is the use of this data for better business.

Perhaps consumers should be more worried about what they’ve accepted for years. The new development is smart for retailers like Nordstrom. There’s little to no chance of effective pro-privacy legislation when it comes to shopping in private-sector establishments.

It might seem a little creepy, but the technology has been around for a while. It’s not that they’re monitoring consumerism: it’s what they’re able to infer and recommend on a personal level that’s uneasy. Frankly, though, what businesses are doing is nothing new.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Brett Scruton

Example of a Liberal arts student. Graduate from Willamette University. Former NPDA and British Parliamentary Debater. International politics enthusiast. Punk rock lover.

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