DEAR JILL: I am highly concerned about privacy, so I do not use electronic coupons, and I will also not use a store loyalty card. So, I was concerned when I received a mailer of coupons from the supermarket. The mailer contained coupons for the exact items I buy most often at this market, right down to the brands and sizes.
For example, I buy a powdered drink mix in individual packets. It showed the kind and flavor I buy. It also had a coupon for a specific pastry I buy from their bakery each week.
Lastly, it had a coupon for a free box of facial tissue that was the store’s brand, which I also buy often.
I do not believe this set of coupons was random, as there were four or five others that also matched the exact items I buy. On the one hand, I will admit I was initially delighted to receive discounts on the items I buy there. On the other hand, I was alarmed because I do not believe I am giving them any personal information when I shop. How was this store able to mail me coupons (in the postal mail, to my home) for the specific items I purchase without me giving them this information? — Victor D.
We live in a world of “big data,” which means that companies are using every possible piece of data that they’re able to gather on us to form a set of patterns and associations identifiable specifically to each customer. As much as we may like to believe we’re shopping anonymously, data collection firms are working tirelessly in the background to collect as much data on us as possible.
You did not mention the specific store’s name. However, I still have a pretty good idea of how the store could associate your purchases to you personally, and I feel confident in stating that you have been paying for your purchases with a credit or debit card. Even without signing up for the store’s loyalty card or electronic coupons, when you pay with a credit card, the store now knows your name, your address and a host of other information about you. Each time you pay with the same card, it continues adding to the purchase history file that the store’s data collection has established on you.
The store then uses that purchase history to create a set of personalized coupon offers based around the items you purchase frequently. I shop at two supermarkets that send out similar mailers, so I’m familiar with this kind of promotion. Often, I find that the coupons are such enticing, high-value offers that they make me think about returning to the store sooner — which is, of course, the idea.
Aside from paying with cash for every purchase, it would be difficult to prevent stores from tracking your purchases. Believe it or not, some stores are already using facial recognition technology, too, both to track shoppers’ paths to purchase and for loss prevention. It doesn’t seem too far out of the realm of possibility that stores will soon match your face to a database that can virtually “follow” you throughout the store and see what you purchase — or influence you to buy something you might not previously have considered.
In 2019, a major drugstore chain introduced digital refrigerator doors for its cooler cases. Instead of a glass door showing you what’s inside, the entire door is a digital screen that shows beverages and other items. These doors also use facial recognition technology. While they do not (yet) identify and know that you like to drink a specific soda brand, they can identify people’s visual gender and age group and then display items they believe a person in your demographic might purchase.
I’m not sharing all of this to scare or discourage anyone. Still, it’s worth noting and knowing that marketers have a wealth of information available to them to try to influence our purchases — making “hiding” from personalized marketing a difficult, if not futile, task.