Americans don’t mind being tracked online—but they hate it in stores

If you’re going to watch your customers, make sure they know it.
If you’re going to watch your customers, make sure they know it.
Image: Reuters/Fred Prouser
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Bluetooth beacons. Wi-Fi. The NFC technology used in contactless payments. Video cameras. Heat sensors. Facial-detection cameras. Eye-trackers.

The ways in which stores can monitor their customers are only growing—and consumers aren’t happy about it. A third of American adults who regularly use the internet say they would stop buying from companies that track their online shopping behavior, according to a survey conducted by Forrester, a research firm. But nearly half say they would stop shopping from firms that monitor their behavior in stores.

And don’t just take Forrester’s word for it: there are plenty of real life examples of customers reacting badly.

Even the lure of a discount isn’t enough to convince shoppers that they should allow companies unfettered access to their data. “Failing to take privacy implications into account when considering in-store data collection and use may push your customers away,” write Forrester’s researchers.

Why are customers okay with online tracking but creeped out by it offline? Part of it has to do with conditioning. Over the past few years, the debate over privacy has grown louder. Since 2012, we have gone from the days of fretting about what Facebook showed our friends to accepting that our online communications will be intercepted by government, our phone records shared, our browsing patterns tracked, our data sliced, diced, processed, analyzed, sold, traded, repackaged, and mangled.

Yet the offline world—the one where we have been buying and selling things in relative anonymity for as long as long as human beings have engaged in commerce—is still perceived to be the “safe, analog” way of doing things, according to Forrester.

None of which means that retailers are going to put their hands up and say, “come on in, we’re just going to ignore all this valuable customer data.” But there is hope, considering the public’s antipathy towards in-story tracking, that the way retailers go about collecting data may—may—be somewhat less intrusive than insidious than it is online. To retain customer goodwill, they ought to be honest about their data-collection, make explicit what is being collected and how, and only do so after people have opted-in.

That isn’t just good practice; if customers vote with their wallets, it would also be good business.