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How Stores Spy on You

Tricky Way Stores Track Shoppers

We are proud to present this post from our partners at Yahoo! Shine.

The last time you shopped at Nordstrom you may have been followed. The company briefly tested a WiFi tracking system designed to follow customers around its stores by accessing signals on their smartphones.

According to a detailed report in the New York Times, Nordstrom began testing the new technology in 17 of its 248 stores this past fall. 


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"We're always looking for new things, and for us it was a great opportunity to serve our customers," Tara Darrow, a spokesperson for Nordstrom, told Yahoo! Shine. "The idea was to look at customer foot traffic [and] to look at staffing at different times during the day to make sure we have enough help on the sales floor. That type of thing. We don't do a lot of tracking or surveillance." 

Online retailers have been collecting personal information to enhance your shopping experience — and boost their sales — for more than a decade. But the fact that brick-and-mortar stores are getting in on the action comes as a surprise to many shoppers.

"When we were doing the tests, we posted signs and tried to be as transparent as possible and let them know what we were doing," Darrow said. While the signs raised initial concerns for some customers, Darrow said they became more understanding after they were told that the devices were in place to help the store run smoothly. "At this point we're still reviewing the data, and we're still looking at what we got from that test."

Read on for tips to help you stay under the radar.

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Nordstrom may have passed on this WiFi technology for now, but brands like Family Dollar are experimenting with the equipment in one undisclosed store out of their 7,800 retail locations as a trial. Meanwhile, companies like RetailNext are working with brands like American Apparel, Caché, Ulta Beauty, and Verizon Wireless on video surveillance capabilities and WiFi tags, which monitor where employees are located in the store throughout the day. The video footage, which often comes from the same surveillance cameras used to prevent theft, can track and count people entering the store and pinpoint their exact locations.

"When we use digital video, we can tell where someone is down to a few inches," Tim Callan, RetailNext's chief marketing officer, told Yahoo! Shine. "We can tell if you're standing in front of peanut butter instead of jelly. WiFi gives a range of about 10 feet, so I could say you're in the shoe department, but not where you are in the shoe department."

RetailNext has not yet employed the WiFi tracking systems at any retail locations, but it has the technology and is looking for future partnerships. Callan says the systems are designed to help retailers identify return shoppers (the device sends a unique but anonymous identification code) and supply information about consumer habits.

Overall, the new brick-and-mortar technology is providing physical stores with the same access to shopper information as virtual stores. "This is no different than what's already being tracked by your computer," Kimberly Amadeo, guide to the US economy for About.com, told Yahoo! Shine. "People are just now becoming aware, but companies can get tons of personal info from credit card data." 

So just what type of info is being shared? Names, addresses, marital status, income, and purchase history are all par for the course. Some stores like Target assign every customer a Guest ID number that is associated with purchases. If you purchase supplements, a purse large enough to be a diaper bag, and cocoa butter, they may infer you are pregnant and start sending you coupons for diapers and baby products. But many retailers and corporations don't have the resources to analyze the habits of any one customer, so your information is likely grouped with those in nearby locations or with similar purchasing habits, according to Amadeo. That group data becomes useful for company trend forecasting and ultimately, increased sales.

Shoppers may reap some benefits from data sharing as well. Information gleaned from tracking devices provides feedback for retail management looking to optimize convenience and an overall shopping experience. It's also a way for larger stores like Nordstrom to ensure there is always adequate sales help on the floor.

If this new technology benefits both consumers and retailers, then why the public outcry? "I actually think it's because it's new, and it's poorly understood," says Callan. He believes it's a matter of consumers understanding "the fact that tracking us anonymously is not the same as tracking us individually." 

For those shoppers who still want to ensure their right to privacy, here are some details on how retailers are keeping tabs and what you can do to stop them.

How stores are tracking you:

When you visit websites. When you click over to an online store, most of them will monitor where you are located, what you're clicking on throughout the site, how much time you're spending there, and what you ultimately purchase. Based on that information, the site may automatically generate ads for similar items you'd be interested in purchasing or email you product information based on your interests. This is done partly for your convenience, but also, of course, so stores can make more money.

When you visit retail stores. Security camera footage is overlaid with analytics tracking the number of customers entering the store each day, as well the number of purchases made. The same cameras used to deter theft are now being used to track where you are spending time in the store. GPS and WiFi signals are used in a similar way to inform retailers about your exact location in the stores, but the accuracy levels are somewhat limited based on the signals to your device. Though not everyone has a smartphone.


What you can do to get off stores' radar, in person and online:


Turn off your GPS and WiFi
. If you don't want stores to track your activities, you should also disable all social media apps like Instagram and FourSquare from sharing your location.

Whenever possible, pay with cash.
 If you make a purchase with a credit card, you link your name and location to an itemized list of everything you've purchased. Paying with bills means your itemized purchases can't be tied to your name.

Don't register on websites, and use guest checkout. If you're not logged in, retailers can't necessarily match your activity on their site with your name. The less information a website keeps on file (credit card numbers, billing addresses, and so on), the better it is for your privacy. If you must use this data to make a purchase, you can always unsubscribe or delete it after the fact, but some companies do store some of this information.

Clear your cookies. Cookies leave a little footprint on every website you visit, providing personalized data that's easy to access. Try clearing your cookies from your computer frequently. It may mean having to re-enter forms, but it's better than storing this data online indefinitely.

Don't answer surveys or warranty cards. These are other ways stores can keep tabs on your purchasing habits.

Be cautious of your activities on platforms like Facebook and Google."Google saves every bit of information it collects about you — your usage of it, your email sent through it, where you visit — and it's just sitting on their servers, waiting to be hacked or subpoenaed by the government," says Amadeo. "[Google] can sell information about you to advertisers and collects even more information if you use Chrome, Gmail, Google calendar . . . " Amadeo warns that Facebook also uses all the information you put on its site (your favorite movies or your new engagement ring photo, for example) to sell to advertisers. Even if your account is private, this data is public property and will potentially exist somewhere on the web forever.

— Joanna Douglas

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