The machine knows a lot about me. It probably knows a lot about you. As Benjamin Wittes and Jodie Liu point out in their recent Brookings Institution Paper, The privacy paradox: The privacy benefits of privacy threats, we’ve not done a great job of recognizing the benefits of online tracking even though, in practical terms, we almost all enjoy those benefits daily. The machine knows a whole lot about me, but it never judges. We digirati are the first to jump up and down about the abstract privacy threats posed but there’d be few among us who’d still prefer to discover “books similar to 50 Shades of Gray” by way of “intellectual discussion” at our local coffee group rather than the non-judgemental “readers who enjoyed X also enjoyed Y” at Amazon.com.
Online, the machine knows when and how often you’ve visited, and where you’ve come from. It watches exactly where you go, what you’ve been looking at, and for how long. It knows what you added to your basket, and of those items, which ones you purchased and which were set aside. The machine is like an elephant, in this age of “Big Data”, it never forgets. Online we know that the machine can and probably will track us, and as Wittes and Liu point out, for all our protestations we actually rather like the benefits that it provides.
The privacy paradox is coming to the real world. Take a quick look around your desk. Empty your pockets. If you’re anything like us you’ll have a whole swag of radio transmitting devices with you. The machine that knows us online can now know us offline as well. We’re equipping retail stores with radio frequency tracking, with image and facial recognition systems, with 3D time of flight cameras watching your every bodily move; smiles, frowns, blinks, gait, gender, age. We’re correlating CRM, payments transactions, ecommerce and physical sensors together to get a better understanding of our customers both as identifiable individuals and as more abstract ‘visitors’.
Walk into an appropriately equipped location and the machine will be looking, listening, thinking, perceiving. But the machine doesn’t judge; to maintain the trust of our customers and the trust of society, the machine mustn’t judge.
Things that we take for granted online, say A/B testing a new homepage design, now map across into the real world. Try two aisle-end configurations across different stores; which one delivers better engagement, better sales? Can you ask these questions of your physical store? Would you like to?
- How many visitors do we get? When? For how long?
- How frequently do they come back? To which stores? Who are they? In categorical terms and as individuals?
- What do they put into the shopping cart?... That they never actually buy?
- Do they browse or do they go straight to what they want?
- What do they look at? For how long? Pick up? Put down? Like? Dislike?
- Do they talk to a sales person? Does that improve close rate? Margin?
- How do they respond to alternative or upsell/cross sell suggestions?
- What has this particular customer bought from us in the past – whether in store or online?
We’re not looking to remove people from the instore experience, but for some scenarios, that’s just what our customers want. The machine at the self-checkout knows all about me, remembers all my visits and purchases past; yet it feels quite a bit more private if I’ve got a basket filled from the family planning aisle.
The new retail technology that we’re employing offers great potential to improve the productivity of instore staff. We can place a wealth of new information in their hands, in stores, in real-time. They can know every customer. But unlike the machine, we rely on them to exercise good judgement and so, more than anywhere else above, we should proceed with care. We’d love to talk more. About the technology that can make all this happen and about the good judgment to do it right.
Chris Auld is the chief technology officer at Intergen. He had the foresight to study technology and privacy law at the University of Otago but the good judgement to pursue a career in technology instead. You can reach him via the machine: Chris.firstname.lastname@example.org and http://twitter.com/cauld.
James Page is the general manager for dynamics solutions at Intergen. You can reach him at James.Page@intergen.co.nz.
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