How stores spy on you

How Stores Spy On You

From loyalty cards and third- party information sharing to sneaky geolocation tactics and scarily-accurate targeted advertising, shops and businesses use a variety of tactics to ensure that you, the shopper, keep on spending. Your personal information and consumer habits are being used to fuel a complicated marketing machine on a daily basis, and you may not even realise it.

Today, SPYSCAPE shares with you some of the known (and slightly more unknown) ways that you are being surveilled as you shop…

Loyalty cards. Every single purchase you make on your loyalty card (even if you’re just applying points) is logged, including price, date of purchase, location of purchase, and the item itself. In some cases, your mobile number, email address, and home address may be attached to your profile. This may seem innocent enough, but be wary that all of this data says a lot about you, and you may want to review exactly whose hands it might end up in...

Predictive targeting. What can be done with collected information? Well, to clear up any misconceptions, most shops only offer promotional schemes and loyalty cards because it benefits them more than you - it is without doubt the number one way to collect customer information. If you’re known to purchase at a specific time, within a specific price range, and respond well to specific ads, then you can be effectively socially engineered (tricked or coerced into doing or believing something that someone wants) into gravitating towards particular brands or sections of the store. Combinations of collected data can become worrying: if you suddenly start purchasing, e.g., various brands of coffee from a supermarket, and that supermarket has partnered up with a large coffee chain, before you know it you may be tripling your expenditure on elaborate coffee at multiple locations without even realising what was happening, through a combination of precisely-timed offers, coupons, and ads. Several third parties all gaining a cut out of your predictable habits.

Online tracking. Now, this one may seem obvious. If you’re looking at gifts for your significant other on your shared home computer, chances are they’ll start to receive ads related to what you’ve been searching for. But it goes further. Companies can see more about you than you realise when you use their services: your timezone, operating system, past habits, type of computer, speed at which you type/click, etc. If you’re browsing using the latest smartphone or laptop, the algorithms are now aware that you spend big on the latest gadgets, and could be more susceptible to particular types of offer and potentially impulse buying. In all likelihood you’ll start to see higher-priced items promoted to you, compared to the items you may see on a less expensive device, or from a different timezone / web browser. If you click/type fast without much scrolling or reading, the site will take advantage of the fact that you’re not paying much attention, rethinking its most tempting offers, which may not be the best deal at all.

What to do against these surveillance tactics? Use a VPN - or Tor - if you want to purchase something secretly or book a flight without being offered fake “premium” deals. 

Physical surveillance. CCTV has come a long way. Marketeers like to think that they can accurately predict your age, sex, ethnicity, body language, and even mood from video footage. Sometimes, small cameras are installed on shelves, monitoring which brands you look at, and how long you spend at specific sections of the store. This footage often combines with smart phone cell data tracking to generate heat maps of shoppers, which allow stores to place their major ad campaigns and “must-have” products right where you’re most likely to buy them. Supermarkets, especially, are social engineering dens from start to finish, from the width of the aisles to the temperature to the types of music being played.

In-store WiFi and network tracking. We advise you never connect to these for a number of reasons.Vitally, it leaves your personal information massively exposed to hackers. But people often don’t realise that stores don’t just offer free WiFi to keep you shopping for longer, but also to spy on your other shopping habits. If you find an item in-store, and browse to a competitor online to compare prices, the store you’re physically in becomes aware of that. This may seem fine at the time, but the monitoring doesn’t stop when you leave the store. Using a combination of all of the above techniques, a clever business can push targeted offers to you at the exact second they predict you’ll be most vulnerable to persuasion, and when you’re in the prime location for it. Stores use physical geolocation tracking tools to harvest the cell data of customers as they approach the store, meaning you may get an offer from a clothes shop simply because you’re on the same street as it, and their CCTV has clocked that you need new shoes…

So, the question you may now have is, should I care? We think yes. Even if you don’t mind your information being aggressively harvested to fuel the marketing machine, it’s very important to know what’s happening to it, so you don’t get thrown off-guard or creeped out by something unexpected. Many large retailers rely on the fact that customers don’t care enough about the tracking of shopping habits, meaning more and more invasive techniques can easily be brought into play without your permission or knowledge. Being aware of the various techniques being used allows you to make more informed decisions, and act accordingly. We think it’s highly important to educate the wider public about these techniques so that we can all make more informed decisions.

Our number one reason for limiting your information sharing: data breaches. Chemists and supermarkets are not banks or intelligence agencies, and their security is often not cutting edge. Spammers, phishers, and even state-sponsored hacker groups see your accumulated customer information as gold dust, and may well seek to combine it with other information, such as social media habits, friend networks, and personal account details, in an effort to scope out more targets for malware or fraud. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible, so always be aware, and act smart with your info!


Your personal information and consumer habits are being used to fuel a complicated marketing machine on a daily basis, and you may not even realise it.