Big Brother Knows What You Want

July 17, 2013
Big Brother

In light of the recent Edward Snowden – NSA information tracking kerfuffle, I found Stephen Clifford and Quentin Hardy’s article in Sunday’s New York Times particularly interesting. The piece brings us up to speed on the extent to which brick and mortar retailers can now use your cell phone’s WIFI signal to track your shopping habits in order to build more targeted, personal marketing campaigns. So far, this concept has been met with disdain and concern from consumers. It would seem that the same kind of “anonymous” tracking that takes place on your browser searches and used for advertising purposes gets a pass in public opinion, while the physical tracking of in-store behaviors is viewed as more intrusive and personal Consumers may have a point.

Based on the cell phone on your person, an increasing number of retailers like Nordstrom can track the frequency and length of your store visits. They monitor your location in the store and the amount of time spent perusing the aisles and viewing certain store displays. Realeyes in London has software that can analyze facial queues from on-line ads to determine your emotional reaction. The technology also exists to marry personal information on your phone from app downloads, such as e-mail and cell phone numbers for the purpose of running specialized coupons. This is not a completely new concept. Check out this piece from the Harvard Business Review which has done a great job following this phenomenon for the last 3 years. You can count on companies looking to master this technology to deliver the most impactful, personalized advertising efforts to maximize sales. As always, a good barometer for business trends would be the Apple Index… In March Apple acquired a company called WiFiSLAM for a cool $20 million, the equivalent of belly-button lint in Apple’s world but a major win for the small company who developed GPS software that triangulates consumer location, tracks every move they make and delivers a marketing message specifically tailored for that customer. In my case, I’d get a text telling me that the 16 year Lagavulin single malt was on sale in aisle 3.

This brings us back to an important question. Are we copasetic with the idea that we live in an age where the price of technological advance (on an existential scale, our safety) is our privacy? Will there be a market for privacy protection? Will we simply replace blanket advertising with more personalized efforts? I might be OK giving up mailers, calls and e-mail blasts from companies tragically misguided on the likelihood of my purchase. I might be a little more self-conscious about the frequency and length of time I spend in the candy aisle (why is a 38 year old man puzzling over the Sour Patch Kids)? I do worry though that this information will lead to an increase in retail noise. It also has me worried about the extent to which I am attached to my phone. As I thought about beating the system by leaving my phone at home, I felt panic and separation anxiety. I’d sooner leave my wallet at home than my phone. Maybe this is the bigger concern.