Shops and businesses use a variety of tactics to ensure shoppers keep spending, including loyalty cards, third-party information sharing, sneaky geolocation tactics, and targeted advertising. Your personal information and consumer habits are being used to fuel a complicated marketing machine on a daily basis, and you may not even realize it.
Here are some of the known (and slightly more unknown) ways that you are being surveilled as you shop and how to fight back.
Every single purchase made on a loyalty card is logged, including price, date of purchase, location of purchase, and the item itself. In some cases, mobile numbers, email addresses, and home addresses 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 who has your information.
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. They are, without a 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) into gravitating toward particular brands or sections of the store. Combinations of collected data can become worrying: if you suddenly start purchasing 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 realizing what was happening through a combination of precisely-timed offers, coupons, and ads. Several third parties all gain a percentage of your predictable habits.
If you’re looking at gifts for your significant other on your shared home computer, chances are they’ll start to receive related ads. But it goes further. Companies can see more about you than you realize: your time zone, 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 buy the latest gadgets, and could be more susceptible to particular types of offers 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 quickly 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, which establishes a secure connection between you and the internet to purchase something secretly or book a flight without being offered fake premium deals.
CCTV has come a long way. Marketers 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 smartphone 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
You should not connect to in-store WiFi for a number of reasons. First, it leaves your personal information exposed to hackers. Also, stores don’t just offer free WiFi to keep you shopping 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 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 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 cellular phone 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? 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. 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 allows you to make more informed decisions, and act accordingly.
Data breaches do happen. 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 may 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 information.