How steep is the creep factor?

Jul 15, 2015

More shoppers are demanding better store experiences, most not aware that to get more personal and relevant communications in brick and mortar, they must "give to get". A survey from MaxMedia finds that most shoppers are okay with anonymously tracking their presence and transactions in the store, but feel that face detection, emotional response tracking and "hiding" devices crosses the line.

The insights gathered were qualitative, but pointed to some interesting findings:


  • Most of the respondents rated themselves "average" regarding technology adoption (70 percent) and leaned towards a preference to shop online. The reasons given were that it was faster, more convenient (80 percent) and they could avoid some of the hassle of brick and mortar shopping.
  • Millennials were more comfortable than GenX with retailers procuring their personal and physical information — it was how they collected it that gave them pause. Almost 50 percent of Millennials would tolerate in-app or Wi-Fi tracking, but they do not want camera-based tracking. GenXers are uncomfortable with both how to collect and how to use physical data — 70 percent are particularly uncomfortable with hidden devices such as beacons.

Methods of in-store tracking

  • Overall, 67 percent of respondents were very uncomfortable with hidden devices.
  • Half were uncomfortable with cameras. Using camaras for security purposes was fine, but if their image was stored any way, it became an entirely different story.
  • Over 50 percent do not want their behavior and personal name/info attached and tracked.

Retailer relationship and value exchange

Store tracking rewards chart


  • Two-thirds were willing to let retailers track them if they were rewarded or compensated. Most prefer straight cash, followed by discounts and exclusive coupons.
  • Brand loyalty does not have much sway (only two percent would definitively change their tune if they had a tight relationship with the retailer). A driver is that, in general, people don’t know how the information is going to be used.
  • Regardless of how they agree to be compensated, they would need a lot of reinforcement to keep their anxiety about it mitigated.

Big brother

  • A surprising insight was that Big Brother and the government is their greatest fear. There was a common theme that "they are watching me whether I want them to or not" and it could be used to hurt them.
    • One in every five cited government concerns as being the biggest deterrent for data sharing.
    • "We don’t have a clear understanding of what the government has access to and how it’s going to be used."
    • "I’m uncomfortable b/c I’m ignorant."


Which, if any, shopper tracking technologies do you think retailers should start testing? How should they mitigate the “big brother” data sharing concerns?

"If collecting data is only valuable to the store, then it probably shouldn’t be collected. Retailers need to put themselves in their customers’ shoes."
"Several years ago I remember a bar in Spain that offered to implant a chip in your arm in order to get free drinks. Seriously?! What that tells me is that for the right offer, shoppers will agree to ANYTHING!"

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17 Comments on "How steep is the creep factor?"

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Max Goldberg

Whatever technologies retailers choose to employ, they need to be transparent about it. Tell customers what you are doing and prove that its use will be valuable to them. Otherwise it will feel like Big Brother and could ignite customer backlash. If collecting data is only valuable to the store, then it probably shouldn’t be collected. Retailers need to put themselves in their customers’ shoes.

Bob Phibbs

As I wrote in this post, How Using Technology To Greet A Customer Is Just Plain Creepy,  just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

What does this survey lead to? That retailers should pay cash to shoppers that they stalk?

Technology could be helpful to skilled sales professionals to help them remember key elements of a loyal customer they know but using Big Data to try to personalize interactions between strangers I think will prove to be a big miss, if and when someone tries testing the concept in their real brick-and-mortar stores.

Ken Lonyai

First, as a developer of systems that use technologies like facial recognition, emotional response, body tracking, etc., these kinds of technologies DO NOT have to be used surreptitiously and as demonstrated in this research, if they are, it can have negative outcomes. So from my experience this survey is reasonably accurate at pointing out shoppers’ concerns/fears.

If the use of technology is opt-in and/or transparent and shown to consumers to give them benefits while protecting anonymity or privacy, the buy-in is going to be greater, no matter what modalities are utilized.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

According to this article and other recent studies, consumers are least concerned about retailers ANONYMOUSLY tracking their movements in store.

Retailers have a LOT to gain by understanding traffic flow and consumer behavior across departments. ANONYMOUSLY tracking smartphones is also the least expensive in-store deployment, and costs are coming down.

Without in-store tracking, retailers are literally “blind” as to consumer responses and patterns in store. The challenge has been that retailers have mostly been focused on getting the data and not focused on giving much back to customers in return.

In the long run of “give and get,” consumers are increasingly willing to give some information. But retailers have been very weak in providing the “get” in terms of consumer value of tangible, personalized experience.

A great case study of a retailer using this technology to create customer value and personalized service is GameStop. They not only know when you arrive, but customize services and your store experience based upon your profile and purchase history. The KEY is giving customers a choice to opt-in.

Debbie Hauss

They can mitigate concerns by being as open as possible, not using hidden cameras or devices and being clear about opt-in. Then it’s vital to offer relevant and valuable reasons why shoppers should participate. If they feel they are getting a significant value out of participating, they are more likely to appreciate the program. Finally, don’t overdo it! If you start inundating shoppers with messages and emails they will opt out.

Mark Heckman
The more Americans know about what data is being kept and tracked from their transactions, the more uncomfortable they naturally are. Thanks to Edward Snowden and Wikileaks data tracking is now very topical and retailers should recognize the growing sensitivities shoppers have in these matters. With that caveat, my experience on this topic is corroborated by the MaxMedia survey in the sense that as long as shoppers see tangible value returning to them for the information they provide (either tacitly or overtly), they will not squabble. Unfortunately relevant content is generally the missing ingredient in most information-exchange retail programs. General offers and rewards are acceptable short-term, but they are not tenable longer-term for either the retailer or the shopper. Retailers will not be able to get ROI on programs that drain cash over time, and shoppers will eventually see these general cash rewards as a bribe or an entitlement, not a personal reward. Content, content, content. Programs that require an information exchange need to graduate from general cash or generic rewards into a combination of relevant offers and experiential rewards in order to make the data exchange worthwhile for the shopper and financially viable for the retailer. Consequently, having adequate… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

Certainly some newer technologies already in market and on the horizon exhibit the “creepy” factor to a degree. However, when the marketing messaging is right, shoppers understand and welcome the opportunity to get offers to reward their opting into programs. Several years ago I remember a bar in Spain that offered to implant a chip in your arm in order to get free drinks. Seriously?! What that tells me is that for the right offer, shoppers will agree to ANYTHING!

Adrian Weidmann
Shopper tracking by any means is meaningless unless it is a way by which the retailer or brand uses the insights to provide something that is valued by the shopper. The digitally empowered shopper understands the inherent tracking reality of “being digital” but that fact raises the expectations on retailers and brands to not only respect their shopper’s privacy but make certain that the tracking results in a quid pro quo that is relevant and valued. According to MaxMedia’s survey, the shoppers apparently would prefer compensation and/or discounts. The digitally empowered shopper understands that there is real value in their tracking data for retailers and brands. They expect to be compensated for their participation, whether it’s collected willfully or anonymously. Retailers and brands should be integrating mobile tracking technologies that are complimented by a content delivery system (preferably NOT via an app!). If and when a shopper is in range of a particular merchandising display and/or category, the system would immediately deliver relevant content that could be product information, “how to use” videos, comparison and pricing or direct compensation or discount coupons — a thank you for taking the time to engage with the brand. Create a win-win-win scenario: shopper, retailer… Read more »
Mark Price

The key aspect of customer tracking is transparency. If you try to hide what you are doing, the creepiness factor goes way up.

The first place to start is with the retailer’s own app. Once consumers are using your app, they have given you permission to interact with them at a far more deep level than otherwise. Location data, customized coupons, reminders on replenishment, etc. all work to engage consumers rather than scare them off and should be encouraged.

Joanna Beerman
Joanna Beerman
2 years 3 months ago

Actually, shoppers do understand they have to “give to get.” Only the value for the exchange of information is lacking in most eyes of the shopper. Considering the results of MaxMedia’s survey, where compensation is ranked #1 by nearly 30 points, that shoppers are crying out for a clear understanding of what they’re receiving in return for information sharing.

To mitigate the “big brother” concerns, retailers must effectively communicate and DEMONSTRATE to the shopper what to expect in return for the exchange. Announcing to shoppers that data collection is used to “improve the brand experience” is no longer enough.

Chuck Palmer
As stores become smarter and more responsive, it will be important to build with care the responsive part. That means present products and services in the store that are relevant not to some aggregate consumer segment, but to the actual people who shop that location when they are shopping. This study starts to unveil that the most valuable customers accept in-store technology, but they expect to be part of the deal. They know they we want to track them the way we do on mobile and ecommerce, but transparency is key. The more retailers and brands can think about how to use data to the customer’s benefit first, the closer we will be to the holy grail of tighter relationships with consumers. The cost/benefit of gas points at grocery stores comes to mind. Keep it simple and remind busy consumers constantly of the benefit. “You’ve earned .80 gas discount so far this month” goes a long way toward motivating a busy mom to go back to the Giant Eagle. I think there is grand opportunity for the data to be used to localize the store environment and to personalize the consumer experience on their mobiles. Let’s merchandise stores based on… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

I agree with Bob (or, at the risk of putting words in his mouth, I agree with what I think he’s saying). This seems like the retail equivalent of “no means no.” If more than a trivial fraction of your customer base object to something, say image storing, then don’t do it. I don’t see insulting them by claiming their concerns can be “mitigated.”

Li McClelland
Li McClelland
2 years 3 months ago

This morning I had my hair done at the salon inside a large beauty supply megastore. During the hour I was in the chair, I received two separate emails from them on my smartphone offering special pricing on two items I don’t use and have never purchased there. Obviously they knew I was in the store. Was it via the reservation system, or because they somehow tracked my cell phone number, or something else. It definitely creeped me out. Stop! Just stop!

Bryan Pearson

We know from research that consumers are increasingly mistrustful of brands as they collect consumer data, and grow especially alarmed when data is collected without their knowledge or consent.

So what would happen if we turned the entire equation on it’s head, in essence transforming what can be perceived as a critical weakness and fear of sharing information into a positive part of the entire customer experience?

Retailers should be transparent about protecting customer information and bring respecting its use to the forefront. It is imperative that brands construct the entire information exchange process as a critical part of the customer’s value proposition.

Building trust with customers is a little like developing face-to face relationships. In the beginning, only a little is shared. Then, once brands show that we can be responsible with what the customer has shared, he or she will reveal a little more. And gradually the relationship deepens.

While customers may be hesitant to embrace tracking technologies by retailers, the brands that will succeed in not crossing the “clever vs. creepy” line and being on the receiving end of customer distrust will be those that take the time to be open, transparent and build on existing relationships.

Scott Beck
Scott Beck
2 years 3 months ago

Retailers must be transparent in their privacy commitments to their customers and how those data are being used. Certainly aggregated and anonymous data shouldn’t give anyone indigestion. In terms of the program mechanics, the more passive this data collection can happen, the better. Customers know that in many cases they’re already being tracked anyhow.

Customer data are extremely valuable and provide an excellent resource for understanding purchase behavior and drivers. There is and should be a cost associated with the value of data, and that can take on a number of forms. Providing incremental value on items that a customer purchases is a proven way of building loyalty with the customer and reveals to the customer how data are being used.

If the customer doesn’t see and feel the value of providing this information, there’s no incentive to provide it. And as long as the data are being used in a responsible manner to provide value, customers will engage. Abuse it and you’re in headlines within a few seconds.

Doug Garnett

I’m struggling with all of this data. The fact hat 70% leaned toward shopping online and had some flavor or dislike for brick and mortar shopping indicates that the participants in the survey are heavily skewed—but we don’t have data to know how they are skewed.

In particular, that makes me question whether the finding that “2/3 were willing to let retailers track them if they were rewarded” is pretty suspect. Especially because the “let me do this because I’ll reward you” scheme has been tried thousands of times with only limited success.

Not that I can suggest “this is the right answer.” My own experience is that when I explain what may happen in a retail store 100% of the people I talk with find it creepy and no amount of compensation would make them okay with it. But that’s a skewed audience because they are all in circles where I’d encounter them.

Still, I’m not buying what this suggests.

Black Rattiger
Black Rattiger
2 years 2 months ago
“So what would happen if we turned the entire equation on it’s head, in essence transforming what can be perceived as a critical weakness and fear of sharing information into a positive part of the entire customer experience?” No part of the customer experience is positive, besides getting out the door with the items I went in there for. Money should be enough for the company. Since when did I have to give more than money and time out of my day to the company to get the items I went in for? Since a few years ago, when some sort of conscience-cliff was gone over by this industry. You know what I find “Creepy”? The weird, “corporate-speak” “consumption-blizzard” words peppered into many of the topics and comments. Anyone who feels like they have a “relationship” with a company has been deluded—by the slow-creep of the cold, dead fingernails of holders of controlling shares. The commenter who said something of the ilk of “they already expect that they’re being tracked, so no big deal” is really tossing out a weak point. Because many customers “expect” they’re being tracked and, basically, hate it…or at best are ignorant of the point of… Read more »
"If collecting data is only valuable to the store, then it probably shouldn’t be collected. Retailers need to put themselves in their customers’ shoes."
"Several years ago I remember a bar in Spain that offered to implant a chip in your arm in order to get free drinks. Seriously?! What that tells me is that for the right offer, shoppers will agree to ANYTHING!"

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