Is Secretly Tracking Consumer Product Interactions OK?

Posted on May 9, 2019 by

I like to think I am an open-minded person. I like change, and I remain fairly optimistic about the future. But today I had a “moment” after I came across an article in one of the trade pubs regarding stores installing 24/7 camera surveillance; tracking consumer interactions, responses and collecting data on shoppers. The purpose – to enhance or “personalize” a product or shopping experience or to help merchants be more effective in targeting the products they offer consumers – in short, knowledge collection to enhance their competitiveness.

As I read the article, a feeling of creepiness came over me. I realized that increasingly consumers are no longer human beings – we are becoming lab rats that are constantly being tested, evaluated and observed – unfortunately, without our knowledge or consent. In a society where we supposedly embrace the concept of free choice, how is it acceptable that we lose the choice of whether or not we want to participate in this kind of activity as a privilege of shopping at a given location? Why should we lose the privacy of our purchasing decision simply because a company seeks to make more money?

I understand the necessity of accurate information, especially when it comes to designing effective packaging. Most product on “shelf”, both retail and “etail”, has been crafted as a result of detailed research, evaluation and measurement of consumers’ emotional and physical responses to the stimuli of color, texture, scent, pattern, images, structure or hand feel. However, these are participants who provide input for this research willingly or for compensation, knowing they may be filmed as part of a limited process. 

By the time products get to shelf, marketing should have a fairly solid idea of how consumers will respond to a package, so I have to ask, why test all of this again in the retail environment and why secretly?  If stores are going to engage in this technology, it is only fair to inform consumers they are being monitored beyond the standard security systems designed to reduce theft. They should know that their responses to products and packaging are being evaluated, or that once collected, the data may be used without their permission for other marketing purposes.

In a time where emerging e-commerce solutions are giving brick and mortar retail serious competition, why would stores do things that could drive customers away? Speaking as a consumer, part of the allure of going to a physical store is the experience of inspiration and choice – to review the varieties and options and select what I prefer on any given day at any given time. The choice may eventually become a brand favorite or it may be a one time only “tried it” experience. Sometimes knowing you won’t find what you need is the palette from which creative solutions arise.

Lest I be condemned as a Luddite, let me be clear – I like change, it is healthy, and without change, we stagnate. I like technology – it improves our collective lives, the quality of our work, helps solve problems and enhances our ability to communicate with each other. I also like good research – its outcome challenges thinking, changes your beliefs, and refreshes and renews attitudes. I am excited about the trends being forecast in the grocery environment because it presents a wonderful opportunity to explore the relationship of packaging within all of the channels it works within. But I can say, while I have the choice, I will stay away from stores where I know I am being filmed or observed for marketing or research purposes without my permission. I want to remain a faithful and loyal consumer, not a lab rat or some experiential experiment. 

Do you have thoughts on secret surveillance at the shelf? We’d love to hear your take on it.