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RetailWire Discussion: Finding the Line Between Digital Creepy and Cool

June 19, 2015

The following news item is brought to you through a partnership with RetailWire, a leading provider of retail industry news. COLLOQUY is part of the BrainTrust at RetailWire.

By Tom Ryan, RetailWire

A survey from RichRelevance found that digital enhancements that help shoppers find relevant products and information as well as navigate the store are generally considered "cool." Digital capabilities that identify, track and use location and demographics still land on the "creepy" side.

Ranking various digital services from "cool" to "creepy," the survey of 1,016 consumers conducted in April found:

  • Product scan displaying relevant product reviews and recommendations on mobile device: 76 percent cool;
  • Interactive map showing item locations and efficient store path: 69 percent cool;
  • Personalized product recommendations, promotions and coupons that pop up on your mobile device based on your location in a store: 44 percent cool;
  • Digital screens displaying dynamic prices tailored just to you: 42 percent creepy;
  • Digital screens in dressing rooms that display recommended products based on your current items and past purchases: 55 percent creepy;
  • Facial recognition identifying your age and gender to display targeted advertisements on digital screens: 73 percent creepy;
  • A salesperson greeting you by name when your mobile device triggers your entrance in-store: 74 percent creepy.
  • Facial recognition technology identifying you as a high-value shopper to a sales associate: 75 percent creepy.

A survey that came out earlier this year from Accenture in the same vein found shoppers conflicted on how personalized they want their shopping experience to be. The survey of 1,000 consumers conducted last October found that nearly 60 percent of consumers want real-time promotions and offers, yet only 20 percent want retailers to know their current location and only 14 percent want to share their browsing history.

The Accenture survey also found that while consumers liked some personalization tactics, areas deemed "too personal" included:

  • Retailers giving them feedback from their friends online;
  • Retailers suggesting they not buy items online outside their budget at big ticket destinations such as home improvement and electronics stores;
  • Store associates providing in-store recommendations based upon their family health issues.

Discussion Questions: 

  • In your opinion, when do communications or actions based on shopping history, demographics or location cross the line from cool to creepy?
  • Do you see any ways stores can turn creepy features today into cool ones tomorrow? Should they even bother trying?

Comments from the RetailWire BrainTrust:

Gib Bassett, CPG and Retail Industry Principal, Oracle

When the actions are not so much helpful to the shopper but are overtly designed to sell you something and the data is pretty much all used to that end, that is where the problems arise. I think a challenge for retailers will be this balance. Measurement will be key so that actions that are both helpful and well-received lead to sales.


Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

The difference between cool and creepy is customer control. When consumers can control the flow of information and format it to fit their desires it's cool. When retailers adopt the role of Big Brother it's creepy, so creepy that it could cause consumers to shop elsewhere. Retailers should lay out their array of digital features, carefully explain the potential benefits of each and allow consumers to choose which ones they want and which they don't. Transparency and honesty are the watchwords.


Adrian Weidmann, Principal, StoreStream Metrics, LLC

In many cases, facial recognition technologies are used to produce results that may make for "dashboards" that are interesting to marketers but never overcome being creepy because all too often the results from this technology are not leveraged to actually produce valued information or results for the shopper. 

I have used this technology and if implemented correctly and positioned accurately with the various stakeholders it can provide invaluable insights that can benefit ALL stakeholders. Using the term "facial recognition" is very misleading and part of the perception challenge. There is technology that is totally anonymous and I refer to it as "gaze tracking" or "eye tracking" as it does not incorporate ANY facial recognition software. It is NOT "Minority Report." It anonymously tracks human eyes as to what they are looking at and where they are looking. This technology has been used for years in measuring and monitoring website designs. Unfortunately this difference has not been properly positioned by either side of the discussion, pro or con.

Credit card and driver's license information has been used for very creepy purposes by retailers and brands alike for years and very little is said about those practices. Perhaps using gaze tracking to accurately describe the correct technology would help the cause.


Bryan Pearson, President and CEO, LoyaltyOne

In general, the line from clever to creepy is crossed when consumers are targeted using information they may not fully realize or know they have shared. In fact, LoyaltyOne research showed that 32% of consumers were accepting of tracking ads on unrelated websites when surfing the web and 73% indicated that they would not like to receive offers on a smartphone when near a retailer. It is a very fine line that retailers must walk. Retailers may think they are providing the best experience by targeting customers and anticipating their needs. But customers become unsettled when transactional and behavioral data is not used with skill.

Stores can make sure they stay on the right side of the clever versus creepy line by making trust-building with customers their first step. Then, once a retailer has shown it can be responsible with information the customer has shared, the customer will be less likely to react negatively to future campaigns.

In general, there are some subjects that are best-avoided all together. Retailers should think twice before crossing into very personal areas such as financial information or questions about children.


Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

It's all about context, and to give Seth Godin his due, it's about permission too. As a shopper, I may have used my Facebook credentials to log in to your site, but that doesn't mean that I've given you permission to act on things you know about me or my friends that you've gleaned from those credentials. But if you give me a "share with friends" promotion where you promise to let me know how my friends react to it, and I share it on Facebook, okay, now you have permission to talk to me in the context of sharing things my friends are doing in relation to the brand. That, to me, is just one example of the difference between creepy and cool

There's a long road to get there, and few retailers are patient enough to invest in consumer relationships in that way, but I think it's the only way they're going to be able to cross the line from creepy to cool. Cool = help me solve a problem I've shared with you. Creepy = I didn't ask you to do that. I don't think there's any way around that dividing line.


Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

Not all of us want to go to a store where, to paraphrase the Cheers theme song, everybody knows your name, knows the things you like, your size, your color preferences, and identifies you as a commission salesperson's dream.

Years ago when our oldest daughter was in college she was concerned about my reaction when she quit a part-time job at Walmart. Why did she quit? Because she was required to read the name on every credit card then thank the person by name. I supported her position as I didn't want it being done to me.


Zel Bianco, President, founder and CEO, Interactive Edge

It may be worth it to give shoppers the opportunity to opt-in to specific features when they download an app. (Much in the way that registering for daily and weekly emails from a news source allows you to choose the topics that you are interested in and the frequency with which they should email you to keep you informed but not annoyed.) This will allow shoppers access to everything they find cool and allow them to feel safe from everything creepy. Also, actively asking for permission and giving specifics of what they are signing up for will likely turn some of those creepy things into cool features.


Ben Ball, Senior Vice President, Dechert-Hampe

I think the argument that this is "generational" and the "Generation X and Generation Y don't mind like Boomers do" is dead wrong. Generations X and Y understand even better than we Boomers do just how all-seeing tracking apps can be. That might make them even more averse than we blissful Boomers who think it is "neat" that our phone knows where we are when we get lost in Walmart.


Chris Petersen, PhD, President, Integrated Marketing Solutions

In the history of psychology there have been countless studies on "personal space." In the physical world, each person has a "comfort bubble" of physical distance, which is typically about a meter. Once someone invades that "comfort bubble," we become uncomfortable and tense.

Another aspect of the physical "comfort bubble" is that it differs by country and culture. In cities with very dense populations that do a lot of commuting on subways, they have a much higher tolerance of physical closeness and touch versus someone living in wide open rural areas.

Consumers are just now defining their "comfort bubble" in digital. Definitions of what is comfortable would probably vary greatly by age.

The limits and parameters in digital space are much more "fuzzy" than in the physical world. But make no mistake about it, when customers feel "violated" in the digital world their response is very physical and emotional.

When customers are truly "creeped out" by having their personal identity used in a way that disturbs them, they in fact use the term "violated" to describe the experience. And, if the experience perceived as "violation," many consumers will not return to that store or web site.

Retailers need to proceed with some caution. Consumer trust is a precious thing in terms of brand loyalty and repeat visits.


Dan Raftery, President, Raftery Resource Network Inc.

There are several moving scales here, not simply the "cool to creepy" one. As people regardless of age experience positives over time, I expect more will become accepting of the technology discussed here. Simultaneously, the technology is changing. And data handlers are changing the way they use the information. So it is really up to the handlers and how they affect the experiences. What is creepy to me today could be cool in a couple of years and vice-versa.

Bravo to Steve Montgomery's daughter for objecting to the reading of a shopper's name from the credit card scan. I think it is counterproductive to building relations. It's a turn-off. Even a very regular customer doesn't expect the cashier to remember their name.

This is where facial recognition works. You recognize the shopper? Show it. Say hi. No name needed. Recognition is recognizable if it is genuine.


Phil Rubin, CEO, rDialogue

In a word: trust. Retailers have so mismanaged the use of their customer data that the customers are inherently mistrusting of them. With trust comes permission but before there is trust it must be earned by the retailer.


Doug Garnett, Founder & CEO, Atomic Direct

Read a great comment recently by someone who observed that when they go shopping, being anonymous is part of the experience they seek. Somehow that truth has been lost amid all the hype about "personalization."

When I stop to think about it, depending on my mood I'll shift aisles to avoid having a conversation while shopping. I dodge sales people until I'm ready to talk with them. Shopping may be social with the people I'm with but anti-social beyond that.

In truth, creepy is often situational. Using my name may be acceptable in one situation but not in another. Anyone making decisions about personalization needs keep this in mind.


Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

The real issue from this survey is who initiates the content/data look-up, not what the look-up is. The creepiest stuff happens when either no permission or one permission is granted and the store uses that as a gateway to look-up and associate other data. For example "Facial recognition technology identifying you as a high-value shopper to a sales associate" means that the store assumes that a shopper's facial image is a piece of data that they have a right to associate with buying data in their databases. The surveyed shoppers feel that's not so. If they did, the creepy factor would be very low. Of course a similar thing happens when a store associate has an ongoing relationship with a shopper and kinda knows their spending, but that's a personal trust based relationship built over time.

Bottom line, permission based uses of technology and data (every personal piece of data) will garner much higher acceptance than CMO driven concepts of how to pound marketing strategy into the consumer's in-store presence. Remember marketing people: consumer first, tactics second.


Kenneth Leung, Director of Enterprise Industry Marketing, Avaya

Creepy is to the eye of the beholder. In general, features that are private to the customer like a web browser or mobile device feels less intrusive when an associate knows more about you than you expect. Location is a tricky one since if you ask people they say they don't want to be "tracked" but they want geo specific offers.

I think part of what needs to be done is for retailers to figure out how to convince shoppers that tracking location history is different than doing location aware offers. Fine distinction, but it is important. Also I think newer generations are simply more open to sharing their location in general through social media geo tagging, which changes the game for the future.


Grace Kim, Account Director, Conversocial

Customers can perceive targeted communications as "creepy" if they are NOT aware that they are sharing information that identifies themselves. For example, retailers focusing on social customer service and engagement communicate with customers on public social channels like Facebook or Twitter are generally expected to deliver a customized conversation. After all, if a customer identifies location or product/service description, they are asking for personalized service. Overall, I agree with previous comments that if the communication is generally helpful, then it won't be considered as creepy.


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