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Retailers' data collection programs delve deeper, get creepier

In this Searchlight: Retailers' data collection programs push privacy boundaries again. Plus, wearable malware, cloud concerns, BYOD woes and more.

If you're not spying, you're not trying. How's that for a new motto for the modern retailer? By now it's no secret big data is big business, but as data collection programs get ever more sophisticated, their visceral, let's say, creepiness could prove a big turnoff for shoppers. It's happening so fast -- and sometimes so secretly -- that before consumers can raise their shopping bag in protest, the store has already emailed them a coupon for a scented candle to calm their nerves.

A SearchCIO piece on what was next in data collection programs and business intelligence reporting published a couple of years ago discussed the coming convergence of data from mobile devices with store surveillance cameras to deliver real-time customer information. At the time, these concepts were in their infancy. Today they've not only arrived, they're maturing rapidly. Brick-and-mortar retailers claim it helps level the playing field with online competitors. But something about this picture isn't right, as at least one retailer discovered.

This week's lead Searchlight item, from The New York Times' Stephanie Clifford and Quentin Hardy, zooms in on the data collection program at Nordstrom's. The blend of phone and surveillance-camera data, when analyzed, showed shoppers' moods, behaviors what they spent the most time looking at and even their gender. As a courtesy, signs were posted in stores letting shoppers know they were being tracked. And by and large, shoppers weren't pleased. The trial run began last fall and ended in May. Physical retailers will argue what they're doing is really no different than what happens with cookies online. Technically speaking, perhaps there's an argument to be made there. But something about tracking our flesh-and-blood selves moving about in the real world -- just seems different from tracking a user name. (Ahh, the naiveté.)

Honestly, at this point there is probably no turning back, and maybe that's OK with the shopping public. As the NYT's Hardy pointed out in a follow-up to his co-authored piece, who's to say folks won't come to accept all this data collection as normal. Who among us didn't at one time shake their heads at the idea of entering credit card information into a computer to make a purchase? Today, not so much. Plus, the retail analytics industry itself is hard at work coming up with "best practices," which could also go a ways in "normalizing" what they do. Besides, you do want exclusive deals, don't you? You do want the companies you do business with to anticipate your every need, don't you? Me, I'm going to be more careful what I wish for.

Also, for this oppressively hot week of a summer so cruel it would shock even Bananarama, the Searchlight keeps it light with new cloud survey results and a warning about wearable mobile. We end on a breezy note with a BYOD infographic and keyboard shortcut pro tips. Keep cool, fellow shoppers.

Check out's own coverage of these topics

  • Be warned, next time you try to tell a salesperson you're "just looking," they may have a dossier from their data collection program that says otherwise.
  • Wearable computers are what's next in mobile computing, hence they're also what's next in malware and security nightmares, as (unwittingly) demonstrated by Google Glass.
  • Survey says: Security is no longer the biggest barrier for moving to the cloud -- it's more about what happens once you get there.
  • What neuroscience can teach us about leadership and how we work. Real neuroscience, not that trashy "brain porn" you can get at the corner newsstand.
  • This quickie post by Gizmodo's Mario Aguilar seeking readers' best keyboard shortcuts may well contain humanity's first comment section that is not only free of head-shakingly horrifying insults that make one fear for our future, but also is totally useful.
  • It's been far too long. Behold, the summer's first infographic -- a colorful look at BYOD and the "trust gap" between employers and employees when it comes to mobile privacy.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Senior Features Writer.

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Is there such a thing as too much data collection?
Too much data is being collected in many cases because there is no good method of processing much of it. Too much can be as bad as too little when the volume of 'data' obscures important 'information'. However, long-term storage can make data that is excessive today valuable next year as methods improve. There is no predicting what might eventually be derived.
It depends on the incentives and the dangers. For private data collection, there's a risk/reward tradeoff: If you want some benefit, the cost may be some information you need to give up. You can stop it by not getting the benefit. (Don't shop online or in the snoopy store.)
Yes, I think that the line has been crossed. A "cookie" can be deleted or blocked, recorded history of my physical shopping I have no control over to block or delete.