The Aisles Have Eyes

How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power, Joseph Turow, Yale University Press.

The Aisles Have Eyes Joseph Turow Book Cover

This is a book about the implications of consumer surveillance by the retail industry, a subject that doesn’t get enough attention, in my opinion. At this moment, the consumer surveillance discussion is focused on Cambridge Analytica, and how it gained access to the private information of 50 million Facebook users. Of course, before Cambridge Analytica there was the scandal surrounding consumer credit reporting agency Equifax, which had its servers hacked, resulting in unauthorized access to the personal data of approximately 44 percent of the U.S. population.   

For its part, Joseph Turow’s “The Aisles Have Eyes” focuses on surveillance conducted by retail stores. What you need to know is: In an effort to build and maintain relationships with customers, brick-and-mortar retailers are gathering or purchasing information about the backgrounds and activities of shoppers, largely without their permission or knowledge. Then they are using that information to identify and court desirable customers, while discriminating against less-desirable customers. Essentially, retailers are redefining their relationship with shoppers, mixing “shrewd loyalty programs, high-tech tracking instruments, and esoteric statistical manipulation with soothing brand images and smoke screens in such a way that shoppers accept systematic biases about them,” writes Turow. 

Most notably, perhaps, consumer loyalty—and loyalty programs—aren’t what they used to be. “While mainstream retailers continue to encourage shoppers to consider loyalty a reward, it is actually giving way to complex algorithms that often punish people for fidelity,” notes Turow, before illustrating how the prices consumers pay and the messages/offers they receive are based on the profiles companies have gathered about them. “At the same time, shoppers are reinforced for following a new hidden curriculum that makes the giving up of data—and the bringing in of numerical and prejudicial discrimination—part of the shopping experience,” he continues.  In the process, consumers are being trained to accept that “getting on the good side of their favorite merchants means opening spigots to their personal information.” 

The History of the Retail-Customer Relationship and the Collision of Online and Offline Worlds 

To help put the transformation of today’s retail environment in perspective Turow takes the reader on a tour of the history of retail-customer relationships, using the department store and supermarket as two illustrative examples. Of course, the widespread adoption of barcode scanning systems in the 1970s and ’80s was transformative, providing chain retailers with detailed information about how products were selling, which in turn, opened the door to the tracking of sales to individual customers—and then profiling consumers based on their purchase history.

In one particularly enlightening chapter, Turow addresses the seemingly overwhelming edge enjoyed by online retailers, who can track shoppers around the Internet, present them with relevant ads, and adjust prices to maximize the chance of a sale—not to mention a transaction with a good margin. But he notes that a retailer with a physical presence “can profitably meld its online and mobile phone capabilities with its physical resources,” hence the move toward encouraging shoppers to buy online but pick up from brick-and-mortar stores.  

Basically, retailers are coming to the realization that the online and offline worlds are coming together inside their stores. As Turow notes, “Retail establishments have long audited shopper movements in their stores,” pointing to the now-primitive turnstile, “which was used to measure the activity at a store’s periphery during the twentieth century.” In “The Aisles Have Eyes,” Turow walks the reader through new approaches to tracking shoppers in the smartphone/Wi-Fi age, as well as the challenges of doing so. 

In response to those challenges—and the rise of online selling—retailers have re-jiggered their “loyalty” programs. “Merchants with physical stories see emotionally driven loyalty programs as a way to address their need for in-store data collection in the face of widespread public opposition toward surveillance,” offers Turow, who says retailers believe that data collected this way allows stores to create relevant marketing messages, which prompt shoppers to accept location tracking and offer up their mobile number. In this way, “the stores can make their customers complicit in their own data releases without describing the particulars of profiling and differential treatment lest the customers get annoyed or balk. It’s a classic technique of misdirection,” offers Turow. “Hype the benefits of a relevant brand experience using the traditional emotional carrots of privilege and protection.”  

The bottom line is that “While many, if not most, loyalty programs can offer real value to shoppers, their unstated aim is also to train people to give up personal data willingly,” concludes the author. To date, the “creepiness factor” has been responsible for holding back the level of intrusiveness and “preemptive personalization” by physical retailers. But Andy Chu, who oversees mobile management for Sears, believes it’s only a matter of time before that wall comes down, as consumers may say that privacy is a big concern but don’t do a lot to protect themselves. “I bet you a very small percentage of people go in and change their [privacy] settings [in Facebook or Google], says Chu, quoted in the book. “So it’s just a matter of time. The younger demographics already know that everything they do online is tracked. So to them it’s just business as usual.”  

The Future of Data Collection and Tracking in the Retail Environment 

A big question that Turow attempts to address in the last chapter is: Where do we go from here? That is, will we be tracked by our wearables? Will facial recognition systems become ubiquitous? “We are only at the beginning of this retailing transformation,” concludes Turow. “Many of the data collection and tracking technologies that will become standard likely have yet to be invented, and it will take some time before every person experiences these activities on a daily basis.”

But this book can help prompt debate and discussion about important questions like: “Does the American public really want a society in which marketers are free to track, profile, and target them virtually anywhere they go, and to share information about them with other marketers in ways they do not understand?” Another big question is: “Are marketers correct in their assertion that Americans believe in trade-offs and are willing to give up personal data about themselves in favor of discounts and other blandishments?”  

As Turow notes, the stakes are high—and marketers and merchants seem unlikely to self-limit themselves. That’s why he insists that “our society should not rush headlong into a new retailing world, but instead should question whether it is the one we want. Merchants … continue to work with the digital industry, which has grown around them, to ensure that future generations accept an environment of surveillance and tracking. If the retail industry prevails, a future societal mantra might well be, ‘Shoppers want to be tracked,’” concludes Turow, writing: “Our descendants might well remember when we failed to make a choice—if they recall there was a choice at all.”