Big Brother Hits the Mall

Big Brother Hits the Mall

I travel a lot and I depend heavily on the GPS on my phone for directions and apps such as Yelp.  Whether I’m walking through a city, driving from the airport to my next meeting or looking for a good shoe store, my phone has become an indispensable navigation tool. That GPS has a more insidious use; it allows retailers to keep tabs on me as I shop, via tracking devices spread throughout stores (Dwoskin & Bensinger, 2013). When I try on dresses at Nordstrom, a “data manager” may collect my shopping habits.  If I spend a little extra time in the shoe department, someone may be taking notes. And then there are those occasions when I have an ice cream/potato chip/cookie craving; someone might be tracking my binge.


Picture retrieved from

Currently about 1000 retailers use GPS tracking to monitor my shopping habits and the habits of shoppers all over the country. This allows them to make decisions related to merchandising, display and even shoppers eating habits; ultimately the goal is to boost sales and get a leg up on the competition (Dwoskin & Bensinger, 2013). During the holiday shopping rush, retailers used GPS data to shift shopping traffic to less frequented parts of the store simply by moving the most desirable merchandise to that new location.  One firm used 2012 Black Friday tracking data to determine that shoppers who arrive at the mall around midnight leave the mall around 6 in the morning, often in search of breakfast. In response, mall restaurants opened early this year, to encourage shoppers to stay longer and spend more money (Dwoskin & Bensinger, 2013).

Many retailers fail to notify customers that they are being tracked, despite an outcry over privacy concerns. Retailers insist that personal data is not gathered, or they remind us that tracking is nothing new; for years, data gleaned from credit cards and loyalty cards have allowed retailers to tailor their offerings to a customer’s needs (T-Cuento, 2013).

Concerned shoppers don’t want someone looking over their shoulder while they are shopping for underwear; for many people it evokes images of Big Brother from the Orwellian novel, 1984. Yet, firms such as Macy’s, Wal-Mart and Home Depot plan to rollout the technology to gather data and provide shoppers with targeted information, such as merchandise locations (Dwoskin & Bensinger, 2013).  While that might come in handy the next time I’m looking for donuts, I’d rather keep some things to myself.  If you feel the same way, educate yourself through the research of organizations such as The Future of Privacy Forum ( Speak up and let your retailer know you object; Nordstrom shoppers made an impact by protesting the retailers tracking.

Meanwhile, if you’re just looking for donuts, you’ll find them in aisle 9.

Dwoskin, E., & Bensinger, G. (2013, December 9). Business. Tracking Technology Sheds Light on Shopper Habits. WSJ. Com. Retrieved January 14, 2014, from

T-Cuento, 2013, April 9). How shopper tracking is creating a new retail experience. Retrieved from

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2 Responses to Big Brother Hits the Mall

  1. Kelly Schwager says:

    Hi Amy,
    Your post on the use of GPS technology inside retail establishments raises similar concerns as the new Magic Band initiative from Disney (see my blog post). While all of this tracking can definitely seem a bit creepy and easily go to far, I’m wondering what applications will emerge as acceptable — even welcomed — by consumers?

    For example, would it be ok if your location info was shared with Starbucks and they could offer you a free coffee since they “see” you are right down the street and know you are a loyal gold card customer that hasn’t been in in a while? Would it be ok if a local restaurant a $25 gift card if you stop by for lunch after your hair appointment since they “see” you are there now?

    Some of these possibilities may go too far while others seem like offers that I would certainly welcome. I think the key will be context and choice. If I’m receiving offers that truly “delight” and enhance my experience, then I’m likely to opt in. The second I feel like I’m being “marketed to” in an inappropriate or irrelevant way, I’m out!

    I’d definitely be curious to hear if there are scenarios where folks feel this new level of personalization and location-specific data sharing will be helpful/welcome?


  2. Kelly Schwager says:

    Hi Amy,
    The use of GPS to track consumer behavior in a retail environment evokes very similar issues and concerns to those raised in my post on the Disney Magic Bands. While there are certainly privacy concerns that need to be addressed with all of this new technology, I’m really curious about the scenarios where this combination of personal information and preferences, buying habits and location could actually “delight” — and even be welcomed by — the consumer.

    For example, what if Starbucks were to offer you a free coffee because they “see” you are in the area…and, although you are a gold card loyalty club member, you haven’t stopped by in a while? Or, what if your car could “tell you” where you could find available parking near Nordstrom as you are entering the parking lot? Are there scenarios where sharing personal data and/or your location would actually make the experience so much better that it makes sense to share?

    While the use of location data could become really creepy, really fast, I do think there are some interesting use cases where consumers will welcome these new technology advancements. The question I have is where – and how – we will draw the line?

    I’d be curious to hear what others think!