The Moral Dilemma: Collecting Data on Customer Behavior


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Did you know that when you last went to the store, it’s likely that someone was watching your every move? But not to see if you were going to steal. No, they were watching so they could figure out what you were going to buy! Retail are simply taking the concept of online cookies offline. It poses an interesting dilemma. I would be the first to advocate that organizations should collect data on what Customers do.

In previous blogs I have outlined there is a big difference between what Customers say and what they do. Understanding what they do is key. However this leaves me feeling a little uneasy and bit “Big Brother-ish”

We all know cookies have been in use online for a long time. History on a site is used to authenticate the identity of a logged in user before sensitive information is sent from a site, cookies have helped websites perform better and optimize their experience for their users. In an interesting turn of events, retailers are taking this concept offline and are implementing “cookies” of their own to help optimize their experience as well, through their Wi-Fi and Security cameras.

Retail “cookies” are a  little different of course. First of all, nothing gets installed on you anywhere, tracking your every move for the next six months (not yet anyway). But according an article on, there will be an effort to watch shoppers in a store by tracking their mobile devices on Wi-Fi and using the security cameras to monitor store traffic. Specifically, they want to know how many customers are there at any given time, where shoppers go in the store, and even what items they pick from the shelves.

Like the online cookies did when they were first introduced, the idea of this naturally rankles and probably explains my unease. As my son tells me ‘nothing in the world is for free’ so I guess we need to get used to this type of activity. Proponents of the practice, however, believe that since none of the information gathered will be personally identifiable that it does not violate any privacy concerns (again… not yet anyway). The idea behind this is that the retail store will be able to staff better, organize its store for efficiency, and improve the experience for shoppers in general by using the information it gains at this broad level.

Obviously the idea that you are being watched when you are shopping isn’t exactly a new one. After all, the cameras they are using are the security cameras that were watching you for shoplifting anyway. But I suppose the big difference is that since most of us probably weren’t going to steal anything, so we figure the cameras aren’t paying much attention to us. But now if we know that they are watching us to see where we go and what we buy and it feels like…well, Big Brother from the novel 1984.

There are benefits to Big Brother watching us while we shop though, and not just the ones I have already mentioned about better staffing and efficiency for product placements on shelves. When a store is collecting this type of data, it shows a concern for delivering a better customer experience. So creepy method or not, I have to applaud the intention behind its use.

In my first book, Building Great Customer Experiences, I talk about how the customer experience will be the next great battleground. Now of course, this was in 2002 when customer experience was still a relatively new concept and a statement like that was more like a prediction. But now, it’s less of a prediction and more of a fact.

Today, retailers know that the key to survival, growth, and market share lies in their customer experience. They know that they need to have a good experience  in every channel, whether that’s online, mobile, in-store or otherwise. They are looking for a better integration of their channels with the goal of pursuing a better experience. All of these things are good news to our collective multi-channel customer experience.

It’s important to have an accurate assessment of what the current experience is for your company. This latest innovation is one way; another way of doing this is also an outside-in approach we use where you walk the experience as much as possible as if you were a customer. We call this Customer Mirrors.

We do Customer Mirrors so that we know what a company’s experience is really like using real-world examples. This is important data if you want to design a customer experience that can change the way your experience really is. In other words you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.

So looking at your stores in relation to how your customers use them is a great strategy for making a better customer experience. Technology has enabled you to really get an accurate account for exactly what customers are doing, however, and that’s probably why it feels a little “Big Brother-ish.” All of us want to have a few private moments left, after all. Can we not shop for shaving cream in anonymity?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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