Recently the news has been all abuzz with dire warnings of how online coupons track your every move. I have two things to say regarding this:
- Not exactly true.
- Not exactly news.
A recent story in the New York Times carried the foreboding headline: Web Coupons Tell Stores More Than You Realize . The article claims:
“The coupons can, in some cases, be tracked not just to an anonymous shopper but to an identifiable person: a retailer could know that Amy Smith printed a 15 percent-off coupon after searching for appliance discounts at Ebates.com on Friday at 1:30 p.m. and redeemed it later that afternoon at the store.”
While technically a retailer COULD track back a bar code to a specific logged transaction in a database and then look up which user is linked to that specific transaction and further research any other pertinent information that can be gleaned from the footprints left over the World Wide Web, with 50 million coupons being redeemed in 2009 (according to the article), who has TIME to trace back all those transaction to a specific user?
Retailers are using the data to refine marketing efforts. But this is nothing new. Sign up for a Victoria’s Secret catalog and it won’t be long until another retailer who specializes in sexy, trendy apparel is mailing you a catalog of their latest collection. Donate money to the United Way, and you’ll end up on the list for a multitude of charities. Watch Gossip Girl and you’ll be inundated with fragrance, tampon and Dolce and Gabbana ads. Buy a jar of Ragu and a Catalina coupon good for $1.00 off two jars of Prego will print out with your grocery receipt.
Speaking of grocery stores, the Club Cards they all use to provide special discounts and savings to “members” have been around for over a decade. But these cards come with a trade-off: you save money and they get to track your purchasing habits. That in turn allows them to provide you with coupons and offers specific to your shopping needs as well as manage their inventory so that there’s plenty of Cheerios, and maybe not so much Quaker Oats.
Every time you search on anything in Google, they collect that data. Anyone can easily check out what people are looking for with Google Insights or Google Trends . Google then uses the data they collect to improve their search engine–just as retailers use the data they collect to improve their websites. Knowing what browsers people use to view their site means they can target the optimization of the design and layout to impact the greatest number of users. Knowing what keywords the user searched to land on their site–or which pages they clicked on while on the site–helps to determine which deals are popular (meaning maybe there should be more Amazon coupons ) and which ones aren’t.
Mainly the data is aggregated rather than used to “spy” on individuals (Mrs. John T. Smith of Kansas City–we see you browsing the Crocs coupons !). And it’s just a high-tech version of a technique that has been used by retailers and marketers for ages. Is it anything to worry about? Not really. For the most part it’s just a way for retailers to not waste their time–or yours–with products that don’t interest you by targeting more likely prospects; e.g.; people buying spaghetti sauce are more likely to be interested in coupons for spaghetti sauce or pasta or people who watch Gossip Girl are more likely to buy tampons (well, with the exception of our Head of Sales, Craig–who apparently is a big fan of Gossip Girl but as far as I know has no use for feminine sanitary protection products.. .).
Sure, there will always be the irritating spammer hitting you up with offers for Viagra or male enhancement products (which are about as useful for me as tampon commercials are to Craig…), but tracking online coupon usage only allows retailers to make it easier for you to wade through and get offers you can actually use. You expose far more personal information every time you swipe a credit or debit card than by using a coupon. So, all the alarms about “spying” and “privacy” are a bit overstated.
Except when it comes to you, Mrs. John T. Smith of Kansas City. We ARE watching you…