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Privacy matters

February 3, 2013


Everything we do online is tracked- by someone, or some entity. We all know it. Mostly, we accept it.

I don’t get too worked up about it. On the business side, retailers see it as a way to create a better experience for you. Executed thoughtfully, it can be. For example, if you come to a website and look at brand “A”, and add something from brand “A” to your cart, the retailer may send you emails about “brand A” in the future, knowing that it’s something that has interested you. This isn’t such a bad thing, though sometimes it can be misguided (as when you send someone a gift from a website that you also shop for yourself, and forever after get emails about that gift product or brand that you have no further interest in).

I’m not terribly offended by ‘stalker’ ads- banner ads from retailers, which seem to  follow you around as you browse news sites or content sites, showing you an ad based on products you’ve recently viewed on a given website. I don’t mind these, because they seem like they could be a coincidence. I don’t even mind getting an email from a retailer I’ve visited recently, showing me the product or brands I’ve looked at. Could also be a coincidence…although a little spooky when it’s exactly what I was looking at. And when I’ve added things to my cart, and then left the site, I don’t mind getting the email saying, “we’ve saved your cart for you.”  It seems credible that they know I have an interest in that stuff. Of course they just want to capture the sale. But maybe that’s ok- maybe I want to complete the purchase. Especially if they include a shipping or cart discount to encourage me.

Most retailers are careful to stay within the limits of what’s legal or within best-practices for protecting customer privacy. But there’s fuzzy territory when retailers try new things, or cross the line between what seems reasonable, and what seems invasive. What I mind, is when it all seems a bit too purposeful. A bit too obvious. When you think you’re anonymous, and then get called out by the retailer on it. Here’s an example:

I recently visited a website, looked around, and left. Never signed-in. A little while later, I get an email saying, “Glad you checked us out! Come on back….”

That’s just creepy.

Anonymity doesn’t exist anymore, online. There are measures we can take to protect our privacy, to a degree. If you block cookies, or clear cookies before shopping a website, the session can’t be tracked. But this isn’t top of mind on a daily basis, both because there’s not usually a problem, and because clearing cookies is inconvenient. At the end of the day, retailers are just trying to make money. And I want them to. Because then there are lots of jobs for lots of people.

So retailers: don’t forget you make money by making your customers feel good about you: your brand, your stuff, andIs a the experience. Don’t make me feel like you’re looking over my shoulder- or I won’t want to come to your store anymore. It’s that simple. I expect my information to be treated fairly, and thoughtfully.

And readers…What privacy issues rankle you most? How has it changed what you do online, if at all? I’d be interested in your experiences with privacy (or lack thereof).

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