Santa's not the only one watching shoppers
New apps, tech used to track
WASHINGTON - Advances in technology have never made finding deals this holiday season so easy - or so creepy.
Marketers and mobile-app developers have developed creative new ways to help shoppers find what they want for less. But these inventive techniques also allow for more aggressive tracking of consumer behavior, whether buyers are on their work computer, a mobile device or standing in the grocery aisle. It also now includes the ability to connect that data together and with other personal information like income, ZIP code and when a person's car insurance expires.
The goal is to monitor consumers online and off to determine exactly what kind of buyer they might be and how much they're willing to pay. Retailers say these techniques help customize shopping experiences and can lead to good deals for shoppers. Consumer advocates say aggressive tracking and profiling also opens the door to price discrimination, where companies might charge someone more online or deny them entirely based on their home price or how often they visit a site.
"You can't have Christmas any more without big data and marketers," said Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy. "You know that song where Santa knows when you've been sleeping? He knows when you're awake? Believe me, that's where he's getting his information."
Consumer tracking has long been a part of American consumerism. Retailers push shoppers to sign up for loyalty cards, register purchased items for warranty programs and note zip codes to feed their mailing lists. Online stores and advertising services employ browser "cookies," the tiny bits of software code used to analyze shoppers and present them with relevant pop-up ads.
More recently, marketers have developed increasingly sophisticated ways to combine offline and online data that creates detailed profiles of shoppers. They also are perfecting location-tracking technology as a means of attracting new customers and influencing shoppers as they wander through brick-and-mortar stores.
A major push encourages shoppers to agree to be tracked in exchange for a good deal. Brick-and-mortar stores used to balk at customers who used smartphones to compare prices at rival stores, but retailers like Target are now pushing their own mobile apps and offering in-store Wi-Fi. The mobile apps entice shoppers with coupon deals or ads as they move throughout a store, while in-store Wi-Fi is another way to track a consumer's online movements.
Not all new technology tracking is voluntary. Stores have been experimenting with heat sensors and monitoring cellphone signals in their stores to see which aisles attract the most attention. One product called "Shopperception" uses the same motion-detection technology in the Xbox Kinect to pick up a customer's movement, including whether they picked up a product only to return it to the shelf.
The company contends that the technology is less intrusive than other tracking devices, including security cameras, because a person's image is never stored and their movements only registered as a data point.