Lois M. Collins: Stores are spying on me. Is that a bad thing?

Published: Tuesday, March 26 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Stores know what I buy because I use loyalty cards to get sales prices. I get their buy-more pitches regularly. And I’ve certainly voluntarily signed up for other trackers in hopes of pinching a penny.

Sitthixay Ditthavong, Associated Press

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I did a little shopping last week, which means I was probably an extra in a film that could be called “What We Want.”

Video surveillance has long been very common in brick-and-mortar stores, its aim to spot shoplifters and severely discourage a practice that is not only wrong but that deeply wounds a retailer kind enough to operate on thin profit margins.

Increasingly, though, that camera that notes how you pick up a pair of shoes is not solely interested in whether you put it back or slip it into your bag. It documents how long you linger, what path you took to get there, whether you stroke the leather and read the sign or slam the shoe back on the shelf without trying it on.

It’s a new era of marketing — one that reportedly has some privacy experts a bit queasy.

As a longtime consumer, I have mixed feelings about it.

On one hand, I know well that the stores I like to wander through are having a hard time. It’s incredibly difficult to compete with huge online stores on price points when you have to maintain a physical store and staff. It’s also hard to compete with pajama browsing, an always-available process that can take place from the recliner, cup of cocoa at hand, instead of involving a drive to the nearby store.

I want the physical stores in my community to thrive because I want to be able to get something when I want it; I want to be able to feel its texture, not guess from a glossy, etc.

Online and in-person both have costs attached and, increasingly, the surveillance is one of the things that physical stores do to compete. It is mostly benign, a way for stores to track flow patterns, see what attracts shoppers and which items get the most attention. Some stores use forms of thermal imaging to show which items are handled the most. Others analyze footpaths and stopping points. This huge field has lots of options and players.

It can also be an incredibly shopper-friendly practice. If items are poorly placed, creating bottlenecks and other problems that can be solved so that lines move more quickly and shopping is more pleasant, I won’t complain. If they can at the same time find shoplifters who drive up prices, hurray! And if watching means they know we all like certain items so they should keep them in stock, that’s great.

I sometimes avoid places because the parking’s impossible or the lines are always long or the staff is too slow and inattentive — or so hyperattentive I feel vaguely mugged. Watching how people use the place and interactions would probably help immensely.

But when you talk about using targeted marketing that says, “Hey, I know you; you’re Lois and I’m going to send you direct marketing based on watching you wander through the store,” my enthusiasm plummets.

Most video surveillance for marketing isn’t like that, shop owners assure reporters who ask.

But you can bet it will be. In October, Joan Voight wrote for Adweek that “Plans are in the works for customized cameras with facial-recognition software that matches a shopper’s face to her Facebook profile through a mobile app. Using the data, brands could instantly pinpoint a shopper’s identity, then send her customized promotions on her smartphone.”

Others won’t be far behind.

Maybe we’re past having it matter. Stores know what I buy because I use loyalty cards to get sales prices. I get their buy-more pitches regularly. And I’ve certainly voluntarily signed up for other trackers in hopes of pinching a penny.

Still, I find myself siding with those who don’t want unsolicited marketing on their phones or to be bombarded through social media. I’m still trying to get my do-not-call phone requests honored.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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