How Far Is Too Far: 5 Lessons From Retail Stores On Technology

retail technology

If you’re like me, you appreciate it when employees go out of their way to help you. Whether you’re shopping for clothes or looking for groceries, it’s always nice to know that someone is there to help. But there’s always that customer service representative that goes too far – you know, that floor person who’s really nice but needs to leave you alone.

In today’s hyper-competitive market, major retailers and small businesses alike are going out of their way to enhance the customer experience.

But how far is too far?

Nordstrom has recently come under fire after the revelation that the company was using wifi signals from smartphones to track customers’ movements in the store. Sound creepy? That’s not even the worst part. Although Nordstrom’s experiment was only to keep track of customer volume (and stopped in May after customer complaints), other businesses have taken it much further.

Aside from simply tracking customers’ movements within the store, some businesses are able to collect incredible amounts of data. For instance, the store could collect information from your phone that reveals your sex, where you are standing and for how long, and whether or not you eventually make a purchase.

While the use of technology was designed to enhance the consumer experience, it left some people asking, “Where are the boundaries?”

While all businesses can take advantage of the benefits technology has to offer, how do we balance that fine line between good business and going over the top?

By keeping these 5 lessons in mind, we will ensure that we’re a big help to customers, not their Big Brother.

Retail Technology Lessons

Know Your Boundaries

Coupled with cameras already monitoring the store’s perimeters, retail store’s data gathering struck a minor chord with shoppers. Small business owners need to understand where that “invisible line” exists and avoid crossing or toeing over it.

Whether it’s how often you send out email newsletters or your in-store policies, it’s always important to respect your customers and their privacy.

Experiment First

Nordstrom’s wifi method was an information gathering experiment. Instead of implementing a tested or proven method of improving customer service, a controversial method of gathering information was set in play.

Nordstrom did respond well though, halting the experiment when customer’s complained.

Be Aware of the National Discussion

Even if your business stays away from political happenings, it’s always important to be aware of the national dialogue. With so many news stories about NSA programs and wiretapping, the nationwide sentiment against information collection has been hostile.

By being aware of the larger conversation, you can avoid falling into potential pitfalls.

Be Transparent

One of the reasons customers were anxious about Nordstrom’s wifi data collection is because they weren’t sure what data was gathered and how the data was going to be used. Likewise, if your business collects email addresses or key pieces of information, let consumers know what they’re signing up for.

Whether it’s a newsletter or monthly coupons, you should always be as transparent as possible with your customers.

Be Prepared to Answer Questions

Having an answer prepared for the most frequently asked questions that customers have about your business will help dispel any anxiety or concern.

While your business might not be investing in research efforts as technical as Nordstrom’s, or as creepy as other retailers, it’s important to keep these tips in mind as you seek to improve your customer service.

Remember, you want to be a big help to consumers – not Big Brother.

Nordstrom Photo via Shutterstock


Amie Marse Amie Marse is the founder of a small content generation firm based in Lexington, KY. She’s been a passionate freelance writer turned business owner for over 7 years. Her philosophy is that the essentials of content marketing do not change from the small business to the Fortune 500 level, and that creativity trumps budget every time.

8 Reactions
  1. People, you’ve got to secure your phone better. Why in the world would you give out information about your gender (or anything else) to a wifi signal provider?

    As for the other stuff, I don’t have a problem with them tracking positions, how long you stand there, etc. There have been market/consumer research companies that did this type of analysis with real people observing you in store. Nobody got up in arms over that.

  2. There’s a fine line between being their for your customers and interfering with their privacy. The last thing you want to happen is for your customers to push you away. Sure, you can help. But don’t intrude too much or you’ll find them looking for another company.

  3. Doesn’t this invade the customers’ privacy? Quite frankly, I find this unethical. If you want to collect your customers’ information, then it is never too old fashioned to simply offer them survey slips or provide a link to your website to complete a questionnaire. On the customer’s note: if you don’t want these retailers to track you down, configure a VPN in your mobile device.

  4. Collecting customer data to track purchases seems fine, but to use wifi signals from smartphones to track customers’ movements in the store sounds creepy. There is a fine line with intrusion and interfering with their privacy.

  5. It blows my mind that they can do this without letting the customer know at first. Still, this sort of stuff doesn’t bother me too too much. There’s definitely a fine line but giving up some privacy for a better purchasing experience in the future is a fair trade to me. If they track our movements and realize that everyone avoids one section. They could look into why that section is failing. Next time I go to Nordstrom, they’ll fix that “bad section” and I’ll have a better experience shopping.

    Maybe I’m too trusting. I just feel like there’s too many people to associate a name to a face and a company will be using this data to improve (which benefits the consumer), not for evil.

  6. Before you know it, you’ll need to click an “Agree” button before walking into a store.

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