I Know What You Did Last Errand

Retailers are turning to in-store surveillance in an attempt to bring a little bit of digital tracking to the analog world.

They're watching you. (Shutterstock/Kzenon)

Here are some of the things that stores -- physical, street-side stores -- might know about you from your recent visit to them:

• your age
• your gender
• your mood as you travel through the store
• how long you spend in each section of the store
• which items you spend time looking at during your visit
• how long you looked at an item before purchasing it
• which of the store's products you previously looked up on the store's website
• your purchase history with the store
• the number of times you recently visited the store
• the average time elapsed between your visits to the store

And also your blood type, and your middle name, and the way you take your coffee. (Just kidding -- I think.) Stores may be constructed of dumb brick-and-mortar ... but they're increasingly being outfitted with surveillance technologies that make them newly smart, or "smart." Retailers not named Amazon are trying to catch up to their digital rivals, The New York Times reports, by applying digital tricks to their physical retail spaces. Through video of your movements through the store, and images of your facial expressions as you do that moving, and facial recognition software that analyzes those expressions, stores are attempting to recreate in the physical world the paths of digital breadcrumbs customers leave as they explore websites. Cookies, made mobile (though sadly, still inedible). 

Retailers can also use the wifi search signals embedded in customers' phones -- even when those phones aren't connected to the stores' wifi networks -- to track their customers' movements throughout a store. (To within, according to an executive at the in-store analytics firm RetailNext, a 10-foot radius.) And if you have a retailer's app on your phone, all the better. That allows the business to cross-reference your digital movements against your physical ones, adding to the picture they have of you as a consumer.

The goal of all these applied analytics, per the stores that are experimenting with them? The same goal as the stores' digital counterparts: improved targeting. The in-store surveillance, retailers say, makes them better able to provide their customers with the stuff they want to buy -- even if the customers themselves might not know, yet, that they want to buy it. The Russian startup Synqera, for example, uses facial recognition technology to tailor marketing messages to customers according to their gender, age, and mood. (So, per a company representative, "if you are an angry man of 30, and it is Friday evening, [the Synqera software] may offer you a bottle of whiskey.")

All this analytic effort is simply a way for retailers to even the playing field when said field stretches all the way to the Internet. If physical stores are going to have to compete with Amazon, they're going to have to do so on Amazon's terms -- which means, in turn, that they're probably going to have to do so using Amazon's rules. As one purveyor of customer surveillance technology put it, "I walk into Macy's, Macy's knows that I just entered the store, and they're able to give me a personalized recommendation through my phone the moment I enter the store. It's literally bringing the Amazon experience into the store."

Indeed. For the customer, however, that merger of digital and analog approaches to commercial tracking will force some questions when it comes to privacy. It's one thing to follow consumer movements through the Internet, where users -- through privacy software, web history management, and the like -- have at least a modicum of control over the information retailers have access to. It's another thing to have your movements monitored as you go buy milk. It's the difference, in some sense, between tracking and pseudo-stalking.

And yet there's reason to think that in-store surveillance will become yet another example of the fluidity we're willing to tolerate when it comes to the balance of privacy and convenience. Consumer reactions to the store-stalking practices, the Times points out, are decidedly (and, I'd add, tellingly) mixed. Some users, when informed of the practices, are disturbed; others seem to see the in-store movement-tracking as a fair compromise for a shopping experience that is personalized and therefore efficient. ("I would just love it if a coupon pops up on my phone," one shopper put it. The stores, she noted, are "trying to sell, so that makes sense.")

And there's reason to think, furthermore, that the latter group -- the permissive group, the group that is happy to be tracked, because coupons! and customization! -- will win the day when it comes to our overall tolerance for tracking technologies. "The truth is that privacy jumped the shark in America long ago," Frank Rich wrote in a recent New York magazine essay.

Many of us not only don't care about having our privacy invaded but surrender more and more of our personal data, family secrets, and intimate yearnings with open eyes and full hearts to anyone who asks and many who don't, from the servers of Fortune 500 corporations to the casting directors of reality-television shows to our 1.1 billion potential friends on Facebook. Indeed, there's a considerable constituency in this country -- always present and now arguably larger than ever -- that's begging for its privacy to be invaded and, God willing, to be exposed in every gory detail before the largest audience possible. We don't like the government to be watching as well -- many Americans don't like government, period -- but most of us are willing to give such surveillance a pass rather than forsake the pleasures and rewards of self-exposure, convenience, and consumerism.

Self-exposure, convenience, consumerism. These are American characteristics, if not American values. And they're precisely the things retailers are offering us as they track our movements within their spaces. Which leaves us with a bit of a paradox when it comes to our sense of privacy as it stretches from the home to the web to the mall: stores are surveilling us. Stores are, sort of, stalking us. And yet many of us are willing to let them do it. Some of us are sort of excited to let them do it, because the stores are monitoring us in the name of giving us what we want. A quick trip to the store can now be big data; our desires, made manifest through our movements, can be met with a brute efficiency that has never before been possible. For many of Americans, that is ultimately good news. Stores are tracking us because some of us, in some sense, want them to.