The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power

  • By Joseph Turow
  • Yale University Press
  • 344 pp.

If you feel like Big Brother is watching, it’s because he is.

Imagine for a moment the following scenario: Bonnie and Clyde (circa 2017) are between bank robberies and are out shopping at their local supermarket. Bonnie, whose hair was mussed up in a recent gun battle, is in the shampoo aisle. Clyde, in the mood for some pork barbecue, is cruising the meat section. Both have discouraged helpful employees who rushed over to wish them a wonderful day. The employees were quick to leave them alone, having sensed there was something sinister about these particular customers.

Bonnie eventually finds Clyde in the canned vegetable aisle, where he is deciding between Bush’s Original Baked Beans or Country Style Baked Beans. He is partial to both and always adds a touch of bourbon to give the tasty little legumes an extra kick.

Bonnie throws her shampoo and conditioner in Clyde’s cart and suggests that he buy one can of each bean variety. She has been through his dithering before. He smiles and grabs two cans and is about to place them in the cart when he spots three men coming down the aisle, all aiming tommy guns. Both he and Bonnie reach for their gats, but it’s too late. The men, local lawmen, open up, and Bonnie and Clyde are blown into the shelves of Bush’s Vegetarian Baked Beans, which Clyde wouldn’t buy if his life depended on it.

What neither Bonnie nor Clyde realized was that they were under electronic surveillance from the moment they entered the supermarket. An app on their smartphones “pinged” a beacon and alerted the merchant as to what aisles they were in and what products they were looking at. Had they survived their visit, they would have received coupons for future purchases related to their preferences.

Unfortunately for Bonnie and Clyde, the store’s security cameras also used facial-recognition technology meant to discourage shoplifters and other criminals. Hence, the cops.

Fanciful? Unbelievable? Outrageous? Well, yes and no. There are currently thousands of beacons in retailers, from supermarkets to superstores like Target. And facial-recognition security cameras are already in use in some convenience stores. 

Most Americans don’t realize that beacons, barcodes, and other devices are tracking them. The systems are becoming so sophisticated that they can discriminate among the rich and the poor. We may be headed to a world where grocery and other retail aisles are labeled “first class” and “coach.” Some experts predict that, by 2037, half of all Americans will be walking around with body implants that tell retailers about their product preferences. Ouch.

All this and more makes The Aisles Have Eyes by Joseph Turow a powerful and somewhat frightening read. Turow explains how merchants are using “data mining, in-store tracking, and predictive analytics” to alter the way products are bought and sold.

We already know how modern technology allows for the “migration” of data from one electronic device to another. If I go on Amazon to search for a gift for one of my grandkids, or a new golf club (sorry kids, my budget is limited), I’m bombarded with product suggestions when I open up my AOL account. So, if your smartphone sets off a beacon in Publix or Wal-Mart, don’t be surprised when offers for string beans appear on some of your other devices.

Consumer tracking predated the rise of Wal-Mart (“the Bentonville Behemoth”), Amazon, and Internet commerce, but the new players have forced all retailers to become super-competitive. And consumers are caught in the middle.

In effect, Turow argues, it is the consumer who is being sold. Our finances, health data, lifestyles, addresses, and dozens of other personal facts are traded among merchandizers. Acxiom Corporation, a worldwide marketing company, says it tracks more than 5,000 “attributes” for every one of half a billion consumers. And Acxiom is just one company among hundreds doing the same thing.

Some people — merchants, for sure, but also many customers — appreciate the new paradigm, which can be cost-effective for all. Who doesn’t want to be notified of a bargain or treated like royalty when they walk into a store?

Others, however, are worried about being manipulated, having their privacy invaded and their reputations sullied. (The last is a possibility for people who may have a minor criminal record that now may follow them forever to checkouts, where they get the fish-eye and their $20 bill is given extra scrutiny.) Some folks may also wonder why we have such a hard time finding terrorists when everyone knows what kind of Scotch they drink.  

Turow is the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of several other books with equally long titles, such as The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth.

If you buy The Aisles Have Eyes, keep one thing in mind: The purchase has been registered in some database, somewhere, by someone.  

Lawrence De Maria, once a Pulitzer-nominated New York Times reporter, has written more than a dozen thriller and mysteries on Amazon.com. Most have very short titles. Some have science-fiction aspects, but nothing as crazy as what is apparently going on in the produce department. His most recent thriller, THAWED, is available at ST. AUSTIN’S PRESS (BOOKS BY DE MARIA).  

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