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How retailers plan to stalk you

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Happy people shopping
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The future of shopping? Or a utopian fantasy?
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Between email, text messages, telemarketing calls and the circulars that still arrive in your mailbox, you might think people trying to sell you stuff have more than enough ways to reach you. Obviously, you don’t know much about marketing.

With spending flat and many retail stores in trouble, marketers are more desperate than ever to get inside your brain and influence what you buy. Luckily for them, the digital revolution will continue to generate new ways to infiltrate people’s lives and bombard them with come-ons. “Companies need to meet customer needs anytime, anywhere,” consulting firm McKinsey declares in a recent study. Yay.

The McKinsey paper conjures a fictional couple, Mike and Linda, who just bought their first home and are now spending whatever dough they have left filling it with stuff. Dream consumers! They might even go into yet more debt to finance their purchases. So naturally, any retailer would love to latch onto these two. McKinsey shows how, using the latest and greatest technology.

Since McKinsey created this fictional couple to their own liking, I’ve created an alternate consumer who might be a little more resistant to incessant marketing come-ons than Mike and Linda, who seem grateful for every pitch they receive. Let’s call him … Rick. The happy couple, for instance, needs a washer and dryer, so they do some Web searches and end up interested in several models on one retailer’s site. They decide to drive to the store and check out the goods in person. Here’s what happens next, along with “Rick’s” alternative reaction:

McKinsey: “Even before they walk through the doors, a transmitter mounted at the retailer’s entrance identifies Mike and Linda and sends a push alert to their cell phones welcoming them…. They receive quick links to the wish list they created, as well as updated specs and prices for the washers and dryers they had shown interest in (captured in their click trails on the store’s website).” In McKinsey's telling, Mike and Linda are delighted by this level of personal attention.

Rick: Drives away from the store the moment he realizes they have been tracking his whereabouts via his smartphone. Deletes his tracking history when he gets home and starts over with another retailer — this time, anonymously.

McKinsey: “Because the store employs sophisticated tagging technologies, information about the washer and dryer has automatically been synced with other applications on the couple’s mobile phones — they can scan reviews using their Consumer Reports app, text their parents for advice, ask Facebook friends to weigh in on the purchase, and compare the retailer’s prices against others.”

Rick: I already look up reviews and competing prices on my smartphone, all by myself. And asking my parents and Facebook friends for advice on appliances? Yo, I’m not 12.

McKinsey: “They use Mike’s ‘smartwatch’ to authenticate payment. They walk out of the store with a date and time for the delivery; a week later, on the designated day, they receive confirmation that a truck is in their area and they will be texted within a half hour of arrival time.”

Rick: All that technology, and they STILL can’t deliver appliances the same day I buy them? Then what good is a smartwatch?

McKinsey: “The forces enabling consumers to expect real-time engagement are unstoppable. Across the entire customer journey, every touchpoint is a brand experience and an opportunity to engage the consumer — and digital touchpoints just keep multiplying.”

Rick: Keep your hands off my digital touchpoints, or I’ll call the police.

McKinsey: “To get the full customer portrait rather than just a series of snapshots, companies need a central data mart that combines all the contacts a customer has with a brand: basic consumer data plus information about transactions, browsing history, and customer-service interactions.”

Rick: If all that information about me is so valuable, make me an offer — $5,000 seems reasonable.

McKinsey: “Rather than push what could be considered intrusive (even creepy) messaging, the retailer provided Mike and Linda with the most useful information at every point in their decision journey.”

Rick: It’s not a ‘journey.’ It’s just a purchase. And when I need information, I’ll ask for it.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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