How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power

Blame it on the smartphone, the technology that is bringing internetlike tracking and surveillance into brick-and-mortar stores.

In this revealing account, Turow (Communication/Univ. of Pennsylvania; The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth, 2012, etc.) describes how the same online personalization made possible on your computer by cookies has reared its head in the aisles and checkouts of supermarkets and department stores, where 90 percent of all retail purchases still occur. “Tying into the always-on smartphone carried by about 70 percent of Americans,” writes the author, “merchants, brand manufacturers, and their agents are exploiting cellular signals, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, sound waves, light waves, and more to track customers and send them product messages before, during, and after their store visits.” This is the beginning of a “great transformation” in retailing: by 2028, half of all Americans are expected to have body implants that can communicate with retailers as they walk around stores, which will allow merchants to gather increasingly specific data on shoppers and redefine seller-customer relationships. In return for capturing data—generally without shoppers’ awareness—merchants offer loyalty programs, discount coupons, and other benefits. In effect, they are training consumers to “give up personal data willingly,” accept discriminations made between high- and low-value shoppers (with some getting better prices than others), and relinquish “the historical ideal of egalitarian treatment in the American marketplace.” Turow writes in a matter-of-fact manner that barely disguises his outrage at the invasiveness of the under-the-radar surveillance at Target, Wal-Mart, and elsewhere, which, he says, demands regulation and consumer education. While sometimes repetitious, his book offers invaluable insights about in-store data-gathering, including frank observations from unnamed industry sources. Most retailers, he writes, hope future generations will simply accept surveillance and tracking as part of the American shopping experience.

Valuable reading for shoppers and retailers alike.