Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cart Observations

A Canadian newspaper ran an article on smart shopping carts titled "High Tech Shopping: Smart carts assist in purchases but raise surveillance concerns". I hate these kinds of articles, where they trot out Krazy Katherine Albrecht to spout some paranoia about all the insidious ways that retailers and technology companies are conspiring to tag you and track you. It's almost irresponsible reporting.

This is a stronger stance than I usually take on the topic, but I just completed a new survey on customer data and loyalty programs, and when I compare reality to Albrecht's fantasies, the gap is planetary (as in, she must be living on a different planet). The standout statistic from the CRM report? Barely 20% of retailers who took our survey (out of a total of 90 respondents) strongly agree that they know who their best shoppers are - let alone any of them at all. And retailers are less concerned about collecting more microscopic details about their consumers than they are with getting any kind of insights from the data they already have. (By the way, the study results will be available on RSR's homepage Wednesday morning.)

But I take issue with several other fundamental concepts that came up in the article. First of all, retailers don't have to offer shopping carts. A shopping cart is not one of our "inalienable rights" as consumers. Retailers offer them as a service, and believe me, after looking at what putting a small computer on top of a shopping cart can do to a cart (like knock them over in the wind, bending the frame), or all the ways that companies have come up with to try to corral carts, or all the door dings on my car from carts - they are pretty close to being more trouble than they're worth. If a retailer uses a tracking device of any sort on a shopping cart, they should absolutely disclose it, but if you don't like it, then don't use the cart.

Second of all, retail stores are only semi-public spaces. They're not like the park down the street. They are owned and operated by a company. Again, the retailer should disclose how and where they track consumers in stores (if you're sniffing cell phones and using triangulation to track location and you're not being up front about it, you deserve all the wrath that people like Albrecht can bring on you).

But if consumers don't like what the retailer is doing, they can take their purchases elsewhere. If the market for anonymous shopping gets big enough, then there will be some kind of entreprenuerial retailer who steps up to fill the need. Because for the most part, consumers seem more than willing to trade some personal information if it gets them better deals and relevant offers. I'm sure there's a study out there somewhere that supports it, but even if there isn't, the continued persistance of club cards and loyalty programs is evidence enough. If consumers didn't like them on at least some level, they wouldn't sign up for them.

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