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Apple Takes A Stand On Privacy, Why It Matters To Retailers

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Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference. Now, from the jump, I do need to inform the reader that Apple organized this conference. It coincides with the roll-out of new privacy tools in iOS, so it’s not a purely altruistic event, but still….read on. I promise there is relevancy to the retail industry.

As part of my research for this article, I discovered that Google removed what was often considered its unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil” from its corporate code of conduct in April 2018. While its parent company, Alphabet apparently uses the milder “Do the right thing,” the removal of that phrase is not inconsequential. Google has been accused of excessively watching everything we do.

The focus of Cook’s talk, however, was the very real consequences of the algorithms used by social media companies to decide what to serve up to their users. Specifically, he believes the rise of extremist groups and conspiracy theories are a direct result of the serving up of algorithm-based content to those with a predilection for it. So does the film the Social Dilemma. Still, beyond that, there’s relevance for the retail industry as well. And the time is long past for us to face that reality.

Where do I begin? There are many who believe privacy is dead – that whatever we do, and wherever we do it is recorded somewhere for posterity – and we can expect to see ads that relate to our physical and virtual journeys.  In full disclosure, I am not one of those, and just like Apple is adding privacy tools into its operating systems, I use Firefox and downloaded a fun add-on, Facebook Container, which keeps Facebook from tracking me around the web on my PC. Duck, Duck Go, a browser add-on for Firefox that uses Google’s search algorithms yet promises privacy is also gaining in popularity.

The simple truth is, while we can accept that video is everywhere and the horrifying events at the US Capitol (along with the Boston Marathon bombing a few years ago) showed us that there is real forensic value in those video cameras, ordinary people really do prefer not to be tracked. Regardless of their age.

So, I’ll say something radical. The phrase “Consumers are willing to trade privacy for relevancy” is a bag of baloney. And frankly, the ham-handed ways marketers are attempting to create that relevancy is an irritation at best and creating backlash at worst. There is simply no context associated with these efforts, and that makes for a really lousy shopper experience.

How many of you enjoy being retargeted? Especially if you just bought the thing you’re being encouraged to take another look at? For months. How many “We just couldn’t make it through COVID, so we’re selling out our entire inventory” ads do I have to see on Facebook? And now those same ads are following me to Twitter and, of course, Instagram.

How many of you looked at Acxiom’s aboutthedata.com? Its accuracy rate was pretty awful. I’ve told the story before…one trip to Galapagos and Acxiom decided I was really into camping. How do I tell them that for people like me, camping is a hotel without room service? Again, context is lost in awkward analyses. I guess Acxiom figured out that its data was not all that, as it divested the division that hosted the site, LiveRamp. There is no more aboutthedata.com. I discovered that while researching this article as well.

Long story short, while I’m happy to have personalized assortments served up to me, I’m not happy to have an algorithm decide what I really want. Here’s a novel concept. ASK. I promise, people will tell you what they want you to know. Otherwise, aggregate buying information by location and come to an aggregated conclusion. But…stop bugging the shopper without permission (and no, having them click on the cookie reminder just doesn’t count. Neither does a 5 page long privacy policy that no one reads). For real. It’s much better to ask for something than to just take it.

In a non-retail moment, I found myself being served up ads for Rush Limbaugh, our former president, and other notables like Ted Cruz on Facebook. I was baffled, for sure, since, as most of you know, that’s just not how I roll. So, I went to my preferences page (since Facebook told me that the ads were being served based on my preferences). Some algorithm or another had decided I was a real fan of all those public figures. Honestly, Facebook’s algorithms are utterly lacking in context. I mean utterly. And so, if a keyword is mentioned enough times, it becomes part of some hidden profile the company has of you, or even in one you could look at if you thought to do it. I was not amused.

And so I’m here to agree with Tim Cook. Privacy matters. It always will. Lack of privacy starts with something as innocuous as showing you the same patio cushions you bought 2 months ago and escalates to conspiracy theories about everything from vaccines to Jews starting the California fires from outer space with their lasers (yes, much to my amazement, this is a real thing), and secret cabals that cannibalize babies.

It’s time to get smarter. And respectful. Tim Cook is right.

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Newsletter Articles February 2, 2021
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