Hard Habits To Break

2 03 2012

We live in unsettled times. Google’s new privacy policy went into effect yesterday. Just a week or so ago, the story broke about how a Dad discovered that Target knew of his daughter’s pregnancy before he did. And the book The Power of Habit: Why We do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg hit bookshelves (or tablets, as in my case).

All the while underscoring the hard reality that marketers want to, and in many cases already do, know alarming amounts of personal information about us. Everywhere we shop, we are being monitored. Tested. Tracked. Digitized. Analyzed. Theorized. It’s almost like we shop in a laboratory, and retailers are the experimenters.

All in the name of profit.

But this is not new news. Actually, it is rather old. When I was in grad school in the 80s, I did an MBA paper on motivation research, a marketing method used in the 40s and 50s to try to apply Freudian psychiatry to buyer behavior. A few years later in the PhD program, I built my dissertation foundation by studying supermarket research, specifically how shelf space allocations were made.

And how supermarkets tested various combinations to find the right mix of this and that, as well as store layouts, all with the idea of maximizing profit.

So if you feel like a rat in a maze next time you shop for groceries, it’s OK. Isn’t it comfroting to know we are thought of as human rodents?

Today the in-store testing is far more sophisticated, because cameras can be hidden virtually anywhere, including inside digital signage. Those loyalty cards we use, along with our plastic payments, are mere foreplay in the world of retail research. Eyeball tracking tells retailers what parts of the sign we see first, and where we tend to linger the longest. That information is golden, because retailers can then better utilize the available display space to appeal to us.

Some stores are using electronic price tags, which can be altered from a central location depending on time of day or week, and, I am thinking insidiously here, by who happens to be standing nearby. Think it hasn’t already been done before? Amazon got in a little hot water a few years back for doing just that same thing, but in an online arena.

As Duhigg writes (and I am reviewing the book for possible use next Fall), our shopping habits tell our story. We are an open book. We may not realize this every time we cross the retail threshold, but what is known about us may indeed even rival that held by an omniscient God. And if you don’t believe in God, then maybe you had better consider the pantheon of information systems owned by Walmart, Target, Citibank, Visa, et al, as coming close.

As I once taught in retail Marketing class, it’s all about putting the right product at the right price in the right place at the right time. Or, to put it more simply, selling more stuff.

George Carlin would be proud.

As for we mere mortals, I truly believe there is little we can do, aside from joining an ascetic cave-dwelling cult. It]s too hard to wean ourselves from the tings and stores we hold dear. We are mere cogs in Machina Economica, modern-day dogs in Pavlov’s laboratory. And I can live with this. It’s the price we pay for living in a high-tech, no-holds-barred, winner-take-all free economy.

Now if I could just figure out how to navigate my supermarket.

Dr “The Bare Facts” Gerlich


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