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Shoppers equate in-store tracking with spying.
Shoppers equate in-store tracking with spying.

Consumers may be mildly or even seriously concerned about having their digital travels tracked online by marketers, but they are absolutely adamant about being tracked inside store and malls. And what they're saying is “Back off, now!”

OpinionLab, which specializes in digital opt-in customer feedback, sponsored a survey of a projectable sample of 1,024 consumers earlier this month and found them united in their distaste for being physically tracked via mobile GPS systems. When asked if such tracking would be acceptable if retailers promised to enhance their shopping experiences as a result, a resounding 88% said “No"—including 77% of Millennials in the sample.

Earlier this year, 11 mobile data analytics companies signed on to the Mobile Location Analytics Code of Conduct, looking to gain consumer trust by pledging to track shoppers only to obtain aggregate measures such as store traffic patterns. They have much to prove. Two-thirds of consumers surveyed said “I do not trust any retailer with my data.” And while 15% said they might extend the privilege to favored local stores, only 9% said they'd trust upscale retailers like Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue, and a mere 4% said they'd allow the likes of Walmart, Target, or Best Buy to shadow them.

“I equate this to the reaction we saw during the cookie debate of 15 years ago. People had to get used to this idea of being animals tagged in the wild,” says OpinionLab CMO Jonathon Levitt. “People are uncomfortable with the idea of stores knowing when they enter and where they go. It's very much in line with privacy concerns around the Web in the early days.”

So while retailers may be able to take heart in the knowledge that this mountain has been climbed before, they should be aware that it's more of an Everest than it is a Pike's Peak. Fewer than 25% of survey respondents said they were interested in receiving personalized attention or exciting new shopping experiences in return for being tracked. “Show me the money” was the attitude of those who might be agreeable to tracking. Roughly 60% said they'd expect price discounts for enlisting in a tracking program, while 53% said they'd require free products.

What's more, in-store tracking looks more like a traffic-killer than a traffic-builder. Forty four percent of consumers said they'd be less likely to shop in a store that implemented a tracking program; only 8% said they'd be more likely to.

OpinionLab Senior Marketing Strategist Michael Whitehouse says that the collective Millennial fear of being followed points to the generally heightened awareness and concern over privacy issues happening right now. “Only three years ago Millennials were all over social media, sharing everything with anybody,” he says. “Now they've flipped so dramatically. They are obsessed with apps that hide their messages. Part of it is Snowden, and part of it is revelations in the media.”

The flood of privacy coverage in the news, especially concerning the National Security Agency and Target, has consumers equating marketers with government snoops. When asked for their biggest concerns about in-store tracking, more than half of those surveyed said they don't trust retailers with their data because they feel it will be used to benefit retailers rather than consumers. Respondents also said that being followed in stores “feels like spying.”

The “creepiness” factor of personal data collection hits a high note with in-store tracking. The two data points consumers said they'd be most uncomfortable with are 1) “anytime you walk past the storefront” and 2) “the products you try on in the fitting room.”

Levitt is of the opinion, however, that it's a matter of time before smart retailers learn to calm their customers' fears.

“I don't know that this state of affairs will go on forever. If you're going to make physical tracking equivalent to the digital experience, something has to take place beyond couponing,” he says. “It's about finding ways to prove to customers that their experience is improving. Amazon, after all, doesn't have to give discounts to track shoppers' behavior on its site.”

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