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When the Perfect Dress Finds You: The Trade-Offs of Big Data

Shopping for the Perfect Dress

Years ago, shopping for the perfect dress may have meant grabbing a few girlfriends, going to your favorite stores, and with the help of a sales associate, modeling different styles as your friends weigh in with their impressions. The Internet, of course, changed all that. You can now browse for different styles and comparison-shop for the best price without leaving your desk or couch. Sites like Zappos offer free shipping and such a convenient return process that they make it easy for you to order two sizes, try on both as soon as the next day, and return the one that doesn’t fit (or both if they don’t look like they did on the model in the picture).

Many of the most successful retailers, like Zappos and Nordstrom, have made it all about us to make sure we benefit from the conveniences they offer. This leaves many of us consumers blissfully (and sometimes willfully) unaware of the fact that our browsing and shopping habits leave a data trail, one which marketers salivate over to devise products, pitches, and promotions designed specifically to appeal to our personal tastes and proclivities. They not only track our online activities, but also our offline ones, like how long we linger in which departments of certain stores.

How the Perfect Dress Finds You

Retail consumer companies and tech behemoth Google are amassing mountains of data on their users to help sell ads, or for their own analysis. (By one estimate, Google’s data centers hold 10-15 exabytes of data. One exabyte = 1 million terabytes. That’s a lot of data.)

These companies crunch volumes of data to infer how they can further appeal to your needs (wallet) and monetize your presence. Brick and mortar stores have been using loyalty cards for years, and many consumers seem happy to give up some purchasing privacy in exchange for deals, discounts and convenience. But now it goes beyond your voluntary participation (opting in by signing up for a card, for example). Today, by buying something using a store loyalty card or simply carrying your smart phone with its location-finding capacities, big data can learn to predict your behavior and proclivities better than your friends can. Nordstrom, Family Dollar and other stores are testing smartphone tracking on their shoppers, sometimes without their knowledge and often without their consent. It’s up to you to turn off the Wi-Fi on your phone if you don’t want to be tracked, much like you can disable cookies in your browser. (See New York Times article) You can also vote with your ‘feet’ by not signing up for that loyalty card, or by shopping at stores that don’t offer them. (Loyalty card stores often end up raising their prices on every day items, making up for the deals you receive in exchange for privacy.)

Let’s Make a Deal! My Privacy For Your Discount

Let’s say you were browsing for new boots on Zappos yesterday. When you log into Gmail today, you see an ad with a picture of the boots you wanted, marked down by 10%. Or you visited the pet store to buy Fido some kibble, and by the time you get home there’s an email coupon giving you $5 off on your next visit. But why wait that long for your discount? Some brick and mortar stores are sending instant coupons and incentives to shoppers who download their apps or provide their email address while they are still in the store. You scratch my back with a discount or relevant promotion, and I’ll scratch yours with my profile and habits.

The bottom line is that anyone who wants to appeal to your sensibilities to sell you something can easily do so; and when they do, your mind won’t process that you are being manipulated because you will like what’s happening—by design.

How often do you read through a privacy policy before you provide your email address to the Gap or your home address and phone number to Kroger? Many of those policies say they might share your profile with ‘partners’ as well.  All of this is well and good and hardly news to most of us, but let’s extrapolate a bigger, perhaps more dangerous idea from this.

Campaign 2016 – When the “Perfect Candidate” Finds You

No single company has more at stake, or will do more to understand your sensibilities, than the campaigns and political parties of those hopefuls making a bid to run for the Presidency—the most powerful office in the world. We’re all aware of how wrong polling data can be. They may claim a 3% margin of error, but polling is more often proven to be wrong than to be dependable. Yet, poll results continue to make headlines, generate clicks and sound bytes, and reporters still can’t wait to report on the latest poll.

My prediction is that sooner than later, political polls will go the way of the buggy whip. While the media’s insistence on sharing polling data with us won’t change in 2016, political operatives will barely consider polls when devising strategies and will instead go to their data room to learn more about the demographic they need to target.

Consider this: the more we learn about genomes, the more pharmaceutical companies are able to create personalized medicine designed specifically for individuals. (See Wikipedia, “pharmacogenomics”). Similarly, the more big data learns about your political leanings, likes and dislikes, the more political marketers will know exactly what you want to hear and how you want to hear it. Whatever you like on Facebook, Pinterest or Google will enlighten and inform the GOP, the Democratic Party and the candidate’s campaign spending. Sooner than we want to believe, our “research” on a candidate’s political stances will be as manipulated as the “research” we tell ourselves we do on Google. You will be shown what appeals to you in spite of your efforts to learn what’s really true.  Consider the ramifications that this highly individualized degree of manipulation can have on our country. The implications are far more horrific than the manipulation most campaigns currently use to seduce and sway specific demographics. To paraphrase a quote from a bad 1987 horror movie, “This time …it’s PERSONAL.”*  And to make matters worse, our minds will be so used to the convenience of seeing, hearing and reading what we want that we won’t even realize how much we’re being manipulated.

How Are You Feeling About That Perfect Dress Now?

Remember how good you felt when you found the perfect dress? Today, the people who sold you that dress know a lot more about you than you may realize about yourself. I say this because most of us don’t study our own selves as closely or as objectively as big data is able to study us. There is nothing any of us can do to prevent this from happening. That train has long left the station. What you can do, is to be aware that when you google something (a “verbification” that is often wrongly referred to as “doing research”) you are telling the world who you are, one keystroke at a time. Your constant vigilance to keep this level of awareness in the forefront of your mind will help you better know when the “perfect” dress, or “perfect” candidate found you long before you even started to look for them.

*Quote from Jaws: The Revenge, 1987

Since publishing this blog in April 2015, we’ve been tracking other articles on this topic:

From NPR: Whose Supporters Like Cheap Flights, The Daily Show, and Fracking? 

Note: For those of you curious or concerned about data privacy, there are some organizations paying attention to these issues. You can visit their websites to learn more. This article is not an endorsement for any of these organizations.

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