We Know They Know! Six Things Consumers Can Do About Creepy Retailers Who Know Too Much

[Part 1 here]

Last week's article discussed some unsightly truths about modern retailing, and the TL;DR can be boiled down to three bullet points:

1) Retailers know a lot about us--much more than we think.
2) Consumers feel like they're being spied on when they discover this, and it makes us too creeped out to want to buy anything.
3) Retailers therefore camouflage their knowledge about us, to make it seem like they don't know as much as they know.

This is the unfortunate chess game being played around us, and today's post is my effort to come up with possible countermoves consumers can make in response to the retail industry's relentless desire to gather information about us. Below are six ideas, four of which will even save you money!

1) Avoid store loyalty cards.
Store loyalty cards are by far the most transparently obvious method stores use to gather information about our purchasing habits and patterns. Thus the most obvious place to start to make sure a given retailer knows as little as possible about you is to avoid store loyalty cards.

But. A smart retailer will make it really worthwhile for you to carry its loyalty card by offering exceptional deals and savings to "members." That's why this is the a rule I don't entirely follow: I'm willing to carry loyalty cards for a couple of grocery stores I frequent and one big liquor/beer/wine retailer in our town because each of these retailers from time to time offers profoundly attractive sale prices. But I draw the line at those few stores--I won't carry loyalty cards from any other retailer.

2) Use assumed names, plant false information.
Back in my college days, retailers and banks would set up booths in our dining halls to offer free gifts in return for a either completing a credit card application or a for obtaining a given retailer's store loyalty card. The trade was basically this: You take this free gift, they'll get information about you today--and, possibly, a they'll get a profitable customer relationship from you down the road.

I didn't have the high ethical standards back then that I have now, so one time while I was in college I filled out one of these applications using my roommate's name and information. The free gift was some really nice plastic Tupperware containers, and I still have some of these some 25 years later. I don't even feel bad about it.

Moving on to a less ethically dubious example: some retailers will ask you for your zip code at the point of purchase. Invariably I will either say, "I don't want to give that out" or I'll give a false zip code (usually 10101, which is midtown Manhattan). When asked on any information form for salary information or net worth information I'll usually put extremely low answers ($0 is my favorite choice if it's offered). I'm thinking one of two things: either no one will bother marketing to me, or I'll be sold things I'll never ever need, like payday loans. The central concept is this: whenever you're asked to supply personal information, do so with the intent to mislead gatherers of this information.

3) Avoid patterned buying--and fool retailers into sending you coupons.
The last time there was a 75% off sale on store-brand dried pasta at my grocery store, I bought twelve pounds. It was a rare, world-class deal--and six months later we're still not even halfway through it. So: imagine you're the grocery store tracking my specific buying patterns, What conclusions would you extract from some kook who buys 12lbs of pasta on one day, followed by a full year of no pasta purchases at all?

Maybe they'll think I'm pregnant.

Two quick things to note: a) unpatterned buying allows you to stock up massively whenever an extremely attractive sale comes up, thus saving you money, and b) a predictable response of a retailer to any extended period of not buying something (particularly if it's something you've bought regularly in the past) is to offer very attractive discount coupons for that product. They'll assume they've lost your business and they'll want to win it back! The consumer wins twice over.

4) Just. don't. buy.
The less consumer junk you buy the less valuable any information about you will be. I'd shudder to see a retailer like Target try to build predictive analytics on a customer like Jacob Lund Fisker (author of Early Retirement Extreme) for example. Another way to think about this is to use the Don't want it! heuristic, a concept we've addressed in our discussions of the synergies between the ideas of Marie Kondo and Jacob Lund Fisker.

Retailers want to gather information about consumerist customers--the people who automatically default to "buy something" as their solution to all problems, and thus run to the consumer marketplace to throw money at some product or service. Instead, protect your information and your wallet by being the type of person who would rather throw creativity at problems--solving them without autonomically spending money and making purchases.

5) Spread your buying around widely.
In my posts on how to beat inflation, we discussed the idea of making retailers compete, hard, for our spending. The ability to switch or substitute is a consumer's main weapon of empowerment, and it can be done at the product level (by showing brand disloyalty and switching brands) and at the store level (by shopping at a completely different retailer).

A frugal and informationally empowered consumer will spread her buying to where it's most efficient, while adding in occasional touches of randomness, like my example above of buying twelve pounds of pasta. This saves you money while wreaking havoc on retailers' efforts to gather information about you.


6) Play along, sort of.
If readers have detected a somewhat conflicted tone in this post so far, it's because... I'm conflicted about this entire topic. As much as I hate the idea of retailers essentially spying on us and deducing patterns from our purchases, I think under certain limited circumstances it's okay if retailers gather some information about us, if it results in extremely attractive prices for products and services that you were going to buy anyway. This takes us back to the primary advantage of store loyalty cards to a savvy, price-aware consumer.

Remember, stores will predictably send really good coupons for items you normally buy if you "go too long" between purchases. That means an intelligent consumer can actually drive the delivery of useful coupons by making very large buys when sale prices are extremely attractive and then waiting to buy only when prices become extremely attractive again. In other words, it might very well be worthwhile to trade some information about your buying patterns with a limited number of retailers you frequently use--but only if you can take advantage too.

The bottom line, however, is this: retailers want to make it easy for us to spend money at their stores, and they'll use information about us to do so. It's up to us to not give in so easily! If we make it a just a little bit harder on them, we can get far better prices and far more value for the money we spend.

READ NEXT: Rousseau on Luxury: 10 Thoughts

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