Shoppers have no secrets

February 22, 2012


Over the years I have written about the increasing penchant of both government and private corporations to gather and analyze data about individuals, often without individuals realizing the extent to which this occurs. Most folks don’t realize that their computers are littered with so-called “cookies” placed on them by websites they have visited. These cookies provide the websites with detailed information about the online activities of the computer owners. Similarly, online search engines like Google are constantly gathering information about us every time we use their search functions, information that enables Google to compile detailed portraits of our online buying and viewing habits.

But, for the most part, people, including myself, have felt relatively safe shopping at real, physical store locations under the apparently mistaken assumption that such stores do not gather information the way online sites do. Now, the New York Times has let the cat out of the bag so far as retail information-gathering goes. In a recent article by Charles Duhigg, the Times has uncovered the fact that many stores, including national chains, do extensive information-gathering about customers and compile customer profiles about every customer and every purchase. This Times article has created a minor avalanche of online blog discussions, all of which point out how very unsafe even in-store shopping can be for those of us who want to maintain our privacy.

The Times article describes one of the most “effective” information gathering and analysis programs operated by a national chain: Target. When I read this I was truly astounded. According to the Times article Target has perfected the process by which it gathers information about its patrons.

“Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. ‘If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an email we’ve sent you or visit our website, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,’ Pole said. ‘We want to know everything we can.’”

Perhaps, I’m just naïve, but, I don’t want Target or anybody else operating on the assumption that it’s all right with me that they “want to know everything about me.” When I shop at a store, including Target, I’m paying for the goods they sell. I’m the customer. They’re not doing me a favor. I’m doing them a favor by patronizing them.  I don’t need them to hire people specializing in “predictive analytics,” the term used to describe this invasive information-gathering and analysis technique. In fact, the last thing I want Target or any other store doing is keeping files on me.

As I said, I suppose I’ve been stupidly naïve by assuming that if I buy things in stores rather than online I have a better chance of preserving my privacy. From now on, I’m simply not going to shop at stores that maintain such data files and I’m going to ask whether stores do so before I patronize them. Maybe this is just one more good reason to avoid national stores and to shop locally. I suppose I am assuming that locally owned stores don’t do what Target does. I hope that they don’t. But I will certainly ask from now on. Any stores that have been doing this sort of thing can add that to my file — as the last entry — since I won’t be shopping there anymore.

Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

I'm laughing at this one. Yes, you are naïve, and even the farmers at the farmer's market are going to try to determine what you want to buy.

Mike Hoeflich 6 years, 2 months ago


I won't deny that I am naive, but I do think that there is a significant difference between a farmer learning what fruits I like to buy and a national chain keeping an electronic dossier on all my purchases including such things as prescription drugs. Apparently, this can permit the stores to construct a medical profile about customers, something I'm not happy about. You are obviously more sophisticated than I in such matters, but the sense that I got from reading a number of specialist blogs, including some by lawyers who specialize in the field of information law, was that they were quite upset over the extent to which stores such as Target were gathering and using customer information, even to the extent of tracking what emails customers opened.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

Your mention of "tracking what emails customers opened" surprises me. I think that in order to do that, malware would have to be installed on your computer, which would certainly be crossing a line. But a firewall or a virus removal tool could be used to circumvent that.

One thing that surprised me was when I learned what the cameras that are installed all over most of the larger stores are, in many cases, actually used for. That's those little balls that are hanging from the ceiling.

I had been under the impression that they were there so that shoplifters could be caught. But although that can be done, that is rarely what they are used for. Instead, the movements of all the customers are tracked throughout the store. Then later, that information is used in order to determine how to display the merchandise to not only increase sales, but to push the customers into purchasing items which are more profitable to sell.

This is also commonly done: The more profitable items are displayed at eye level, and the ones that are less so are way up high or way down low. As customers walk down the isle, they tend to only look at and buy the items that are displayed at eye level.

And of course, what is referred to as the caps (That's the displays at the ends of the isles of merchandise.) are always very strategically placed and the displays of the merchandise there is very carefully chosen. In fact, sometimes the manufacturers indirectly pay to have their items displayed on the caps.

In the large chain stores, none of the displays are done at the discretion of the individual store management.

And, there's all those items that you have to look at while you're waiting in the checkout line. Of course those are all well stocked with candy to induce the children to beg their parents to buy that too.

Marketing and advertising are what makes a retail establishment profitable. Marketing and advertising are very big business.

Clipped from: http://www.intenseinfluence.com/blog/how-much-money-is-spent-on-advertising-per-year "Outsell Inc. recently published a report putting out some numbers. Estimated budget for advertising and marketing in the USA 2008: $412,400,000,000 (yep, about 412 billion dollars). To put things in perspective: The Iraq war so far costs the USA: $558 billion according to zfacts.com."

I don't worry about all that very much myself, although I do try to avoid having my purchase decisions influenced that way. But I do know that I often fail.

But I have a vested interest that applies to very few. The real reason I don't mind any of that and remain rather public is that I am looking for and hope to find someone.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

The clip was written in 2008 and the cost of the Iraq has now cost well over a trillion dollars, which is incomprehensible.

Mike Hoeflich 6 years, 2 months ago


I fully understand your personal situation and offer my sympathy. I can also understand why store cameras could help. As to the email tracking that the Times reported, I was frankly astounded as were a fair number of bloggers. I have been told that even those of us who try to keep cookies and malware off our computers often cannot actually do so totally. I wonder whether commercially available security and firewall programs keep Target and their ilk from tracking our opening emails. Just in case they don't, I'm going to be deleting all email from Target without opening. I worry personally about the security of medical information. I'm a diabetic and I am constantly receiving email offers for various diabetic medications from sites and companies I've never visited online or in person. I have no doubt at all that my occasional purchase of diabetic supplies at chain stores like Target has generated files that are sold to interested companies. That really annoys me.

oldvet 6 years, 2 months ago

Be sure to line your umbrella with tin foil... the black helicopters are up there monitoring you.

jafs 6 years, 2 months ago

That's a strange response, given that the stores are in fact monitoring their customers quite closely.

btsflk 6 years, 2 months ago

Though the cameras may track my movements, and they must get bored tracking mine; I use cash instead of a check or card of any kind.

Mark Jakubauskas 6 years, 2 months ago

Better use cash too, Mike. They'll track you via the credit card. Shop at Dillons ? Use your Dillons Discount Card ? Yep, more tracking data. The stereotype is that the "guvnmint" has big computers to track its citizens (a la "1984"), but the truth is, corporations have done it for longer, spend far more money on it, and have zero accountability. Doesn't surprise me one bit that Target is doing what it is doing. And corporations are absolutely drooling at what kind of personal data Facebook could bring them....

somedude20 6 years, 2 months ago

"......And (I always feel like) (Somebody's watching me) And I have no privacy Whooooa-oh-oh (I always feel like) (Somebody's watching me) Tell me, is it just a dream

When I come home at night I bolt the door real tight People call me on the phone I'm trying to avoid But can the people on TV see me Or am I just paranoid

When I'm in the shower I'm afraid to wash my hair 'Cause I might open my eyes And find someone standing there People say I'm crazy Just a little touched But maybe showers remind me Of Psycho too much That's why"

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

A clip from that link:

"Pole applied his program to every regular female shopper in Target's national database and soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant. If they could entice those women or their husbands to visit Target and buy baby-related products, the company's cue-routine-reward calculators could kick in and start pushing them to buy groceries, bathing suits, toys and clothing, as well. When Pole shared his list with the marketers, he said, they were ecstatic. Soon, Pole was getting invited to meetings above his paygrade. Eventually his paygrade went up.

At which point someone asked an important question: How are women going to react when they figure out how much Target knows?

"If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!' and they've never told us they're pregnant, that's going to make some people uncomfortable," Pole told me. "We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you're following the law, you can do things where people get queasy."

About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.

"My daughter got this in the mail!" he said. "She's still in high school, and you're sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?"

The manager didn't have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man's daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. "I had a talk with my daughter," he said. "It turns out there's been some activities in my house I haven't been completely aware of. She's due in August. I owe you an apology.""

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