The Aisles Have Eyes: How Brick-And-Mortar Stores Are Watching You

By now, it’s a no-brainer: we realize and accept (mostly) that online shopping allows retailers to gather information on us. But what most people fail to realize is that brick-and-mortar stores are starting to follow us too. It’s 2017, but welcome to 1984.

Joseph Turow’s book, The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy and Define Your Power, shows how brick-and-mortar retail is now using technology to track and market to customers, almost as effectively as online retailers. Turow is a professor of communications and associate dean for graduate studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

The objective: for the retailer to get an idea of how and when the customer shops.  This information includes when the customer walks into the store, how long they stay, and what merchandise attracts them. The concern no longer seems to be about shoplifting; it’s about consumer-habit-lifting.

The source of the tech: bluetooth boxes, which communicate with your phone and follow you around the store. And that’s not the only magic trick -- retailers can actually change prices on goods based upon where you are. So you can literally walk into a clearance sale, just because you are you.

There’s a big catch to the plan, though: your phone has to have the store’s app in order for the Bluetooth to communicate with it. Or, if it’s not the store’s app, your phone may have an app that sports a special code that allows the Bluetooth to talk to it. This tracking can even extend outside the store, to the parking lot and beyond, if your app is connected to GPS. As you approach your car in the mall parking lot, the app may call you back with a very tempting discount.

Another innovation: the accelerometer, a sensor built into your phone that can measure your movement. If you’re wandering through a mall, for instance, the accelerometer will follow you, and tell retailers if you’re walking in the direction of the store, or if you’re visiting a competitor instead.

Turow says that phones have become more than a communication tool -- they’re now a marketing device. Loyalty programs go back as far as S&H Green Stamps, but today’s devices may reward you even if you are not a loyal customer -- especially if you are not a loyal customer. If retailers see that you are not buying enough -- or if you are about to leave the store without buying anything -- they may tempt you by sending you more discounts before you go. A loyal customer -- who is loyal by that very definition -- may not get any discount at all.

Brick-and-mortar’s brave fight back from extinction began during the Christmas season of 2011, when Amazon urged customers to take their phones and scan products they saw in stores. In turn, Amazon would give a product discount to that customer. This was the moment of truth for brick-and-mortar, when retailers realized that they have to become the Internet of their own stores -- and start mining data.

Despite the constant call of “the retail apocalypse,” most Americans still do most of their shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. As a result, retail marketers still yearn to understand their customers -- how they browse, how they move, how they buy and how they leave -- in order to better serve their base.

In the end, it’s win/win: retailers get their info, and customers get their deals.




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