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'The Aisles Have Eyes' author talks privacy and data in shopping

By  |  Published: March 21, 2017

The Aisles have eyes

As you stroll through your favorite store today, whether perusing spring dresses or hunting for fresh produce, chances are growing that your store is sizing you up as well, using some of the same tools that drive online sales to spot your presence, note your purchases – and even adjust your discount.

Welcome to the chilling world of “The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power” by University of Pennsylvania communications professor Joseph Turow. The book was released in January 2017.

By combining behind-closed-doors discussions by marketing and advertising chiefs with revealing public surveys, Turow explores how aggressive customer tracking is seeping down from the Internet to retail giants such as Macy’s, Safeway, Target and Wal-Mart – and how consumers are being conditioned to embrace it as a good thing. By one expert’s estimate, within 20 years, half of all Americans will have body implants to tell retailers how they feel about products as they shop.

Could this return to the individual-oriented peddler retailing phase of the 1880s, where everybody knew your name, and save you money in brick-and-mortar stores? Perhaps – but at what cost to your privacy? Turow talked with CreditCards.com about these and other implications of the not-so-distant future of shopping.

Q&A

University of Pennsylvania communications professor Joseph Turow

Q: Your 2013 book, “The Daily You,” essentially mapped out the online advertising barrage we enjoy/ignore today. Will we somehow be more accepting of it in brick-and-mortar retail stores because we’re used to being bombarded with pitches and pop-ups online?

A: That’s interesting. Part of what I’m saying in “The Aisles Have Eyes” is that there is a hidden curriculum where we’re learning all this stuff as if it’s normal; it’s being normalized for us. We’ve done some research in the past year-and-a-half that pretty definitively shows that people feel resigned around what’s going on. We gave the survey group a group of statements, one of which was, “I would like to have control over what companies know about me online,” and another was, “I’ve come to believe I have little or no control over what companies know about me.” If a person said they agree with both, we said that they were resigned, and 58 percent of Americans agreed with both of those statements. It had very little to do with any kind of demographic, like age, education or gender.

Marketers have tended to say for the last 10 years or so that the reason that people give up this data is because they are trading data for good things, like being able to have a social media account, for example. But what we show in the study is that, philosophically, people don’t like these kinds of trade-offs, but practically speaking, they’re really resigned to them. They go on Google or Facebook and they say, “I have to do this. It’s not like I want to, but how could I live my life without Facebook?”

Q: Ironically, the very technologies that brick-and-mortar retailers are now covertly using to track consumer behavior, such as facial recognition, NFC, RFID, implants and iris scans, are exactly the same ones that the credit card industry has touted as a high-tech means to protect our card information.

A: Retailers got freaked out back in 2011 when Amazon told online customers to scan store shelves and they would honor the discounts online. Aside from giving people discounts for what they would have bought in physical stores, Amazon was finding out what the prices were all across the United States, and the stores freaked out about this. And they said, “We have to start seeing the Internet as a paradigm for what we should do in the stores.” That really put acceleration to the idea of being able to track people and dealing with their data in the physical space.

Q: Most people willingly forfeit some personal data for the sole reason of getting a deal. What’s wrong with that?

A: There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to get a deal. What I try to argue, though, is that there are a number of things going on. First of all, the deal, more and more, is a personalized blandishment that is designed based upon a profile that is created about you in ways you have no clue about, based upon things that you don’t even know are being collected about you, and that that kind of experience has multiple possible societal consequences. From the individual’s standpoint, if you’re a winner, that’s great for you. But there are also people who are not winners and may be treated in a prejudicial way because of the kind of data that companies think they know about them, whether it’s true or not. That’s creating a situation where we’re going back to the pre-industrial revolution peddler era in retail, where companies are using people’s information to build stereotypes about them, change the prices and decide what to show them – again, based upon what people don’t even know is happening. That may create an atmosphere where people walk into stores wondering, “What does this store know about me? Am I getting a decent price? What about the person next to me?” I think that is corrosive to the larger society.

This is a hidden curriculum. The stores are implicitly teaching people that the way to get along in the 21st century is to give up your data. And not only is it just about stores; it’s teaching people that this is the case for everything.

Companies are using people’s information to build stereotypes about them, change the prices and decide what to show them – again, based upon what people don’t even know is happening.

Q: What if you choose not to play?

A: There are people who try to go off the grid and pay only with cash, but if you do it too often, people will view you as suspect. Companies and government agencies respond by wondering, “Who are you? What are you doing? Is there something suspect about you that you’re not doing what we think you ought to do in terms of giving up your data?” People who are not doing these sorts of things aren’t going to get a loan or a credit card, and you might even be looked at as somebody who has something to hide.

Q: Among the data that retailers are gathering about us is the number of credit cards we have. What’s their goal there?

A: Although the companies who sell this data wouldn’t share with me the nature of their algorithms, one could imagine that, through a “big data” mix, you could try to predict how having a certain number of cards predicts your purchase of other goods, or that you pay your loans well. If you put together credit card and banking activities as part of a larger mix of behaviors and psychographics, one could imagine you could come up with interesting predictive capabilities.

Q: So, while credit card companies insist that shoppers don’t want to be hacked, retailers are trying to convince us that shoppers want to be tracked?

A: Absolutely true. The companies will say that people want to be tracked so they can get the most relevant material at the right point in time. We’re moving into an era, not just in retailing but in general, of personalization. Think of all the ways in which our society is moving toward personalization. We’re in an era where companies are more and more using psychological and behavioral analyses that are designed to bring together a whole lot of data points to predict individual activities and even to serve individualized content based upon that.

Q: That sounds a bit Orwellian. Is this “1984” and Big Brother is watching?

A: I don’t think that Orwell is the best analogy, although some have pointed out the resemblance between Trump-speak and Orwell’s Newspeak. I think the best analogy may be (Franz) Kafka. He wrote about the state creating this kind of topsy-turvy world where you weren’t really sure what was going on, where people in authority had control but the control was obscure, and the things that were happening to you – it wasn’t clear why they were happening. That’s more like it than the unified Big Brother. There’s no solitary conspiracy going on here; what we’re seeing is kind of an organizational logic. Due to hyper-competition, in which the companies take a look at the environment in which they exist (and) see all the technology firms that are willing to help them (go) in certain directions, they believe that, because of the way people talk to each other, personalization is the way to go. They try to solve their own problems in the competitive arena through these kinds of activities. We’re in a world that does resemble a kind of Kafka-esque situation, where you’re being treated in ways that may have nothing to do with how you understand the world.

Q: What might this mean for the future of retail bargain-hunting in physical stores?

A: There is increasing evidence that the variety of prices and the competitiveness of prices on the Internet is really a short-term activity. There are some economists who believe that, as the oversight of the Internet becomes more and more possible by stores and they begin to scarf up data across different sites, prices are going to become more similar to each other rather than more different. Companies will begin to understand that there’s no utility to lowering the price anymore, because somebody is going to lower it even more, so there will emerge a kind of equilibrium.

Q: Which takes us right back to the pre-industrial peddler days of retail.

A: Exactly; we’re going back to the future. We’re in the third phase of retailing. The first phase was the peddler era, where people used stereotypes, charged people what they could get away with, showed people different things based upon what they thought about those people. Then came the second phase, this ideal of the democratization of desire. And now we’re going back to a personalization era, where it’s stereotyping on steroids, with a scientific spin; changing the price based on what you think you know about the person, changing what you want to highlight for that person, and online, even what that person will see.

A: What would you like people to take away from your book?

A: First, realize that this is going on. Second, recognize the hidden curriculum that, without conspiracy, people are being trained to buy into the notion that giving up data is just part of life; that’s what you do. And finally, start asking, “What about information respect?” To what extent should companies reveal themselves more in terms of what they do and give people more choices that they really understand?

We have to go from creepy to crappy. What I mean by that is, I’ve come to understand that, when people say about things like store beacons, “Boy, that’s really creepy,” what creepy means is, I’m uncomfortable with this but I don’t really understand it. What crappy means to me is, I’m angry. I want this slowed down, sometimes stopped. I want more control. Then I think we have to have a serious social conversation about how much data companies should collect about us.

See related: Securely storing customer card dataWhen your card's big data collection goes from cool to creepyShopping beacons with targeted marketing messages expand

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Updated: 08-23-2017

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