Saturday, April 10, 2010

Inadvertent tweeting (on being stalked by supermarkets)

In March 2010, I received an email thanking me for shopping at the Woolworths Bondi supermarket (in Sydney), and asking me to complete a short survey to "rate [my] shopping experience". I was slightly taken aback, although perhaps I should not have been. I did complete the survey, and when asked how likely I would be to recommend the store in future to colleagues and friends I chose "extremely unlikely" (as they probably wouldn't want to be stalked).

I tweeted about this, and posted a photo on flickr, and a few people agreed that it was a somewhat freaky experience. I then more or less forgot about it, until yesterday, when I received another identical invitation.

I recognise that participation in most "rewards" or "awards" programs implies a degree of disclosure. However, I'm not entirely comfortable with my shopping being so actively tracked.

I'm also unaware of the extent of that tracking. For example, does Woolworths have an inventory of the actual items I purchased? If so, to what use will that information be put?

Occasionally I hear clients OK certain actions because they were "disclosed" in the terms and conditions. However, in many years of active observation of users interacting with paper and online versions of various "Ts and Cs" (as they're often called), I have yet to see someone read them. Most people blithely scan them and click the "Accept" button. To pretend that information buried in such documents has been "disclosed" is quite simply that - a pretence.

The Terms & Conditions, incidentally, contain over 4200 words - I've included a screen grab of it at the bottom of this post (if you're really fascinated by all this, you can read the full text).

I wondered what was in the Woolworths Ts and Cs. I couldn't actually find where I'd agreed to be tracked and polled. However, I did find the following statement:

"We will only use your personal information to operate and to provide you with the membership benefits of the Everyday Rewards Program (including our member newsletter), and the Qantas Frequent Flyer program (if applicable), and to bring you Other Benefits from the Woolworths Group."

My definition of a "benefit", even an "Other Benefit", is apparently somewhat at odds with the Woolworths definition.


  1. Hi Gerry

    Interesting stuff.

    You might be interested to know that some in the industry interpret the conduct of market research as part of the "operation of a service", thus allowing Woolies to contact you to participate in that (voluntary) market research as part of their Ts and Cs.

    Of course, I'm no lawyer, so don't take my word for it, but having worked in market research for about 5 years, I can confirm that this was how the (Australian) National Privacy Principles were often interpreted.

    I would also hazard that tracking exactly what you buy when and where would be considered necessary information to "bring you Other Benefits from the Woolworths Group" (i.e. specials by region).

    Finally, as a fellow user experience practitioner, I concur that hardly anyone reads Ts and Cs. However, being devil's advocate, I would ask is it not our responsibility as consumers to do so? Is it really fair to say to corporation X: "you've told me what joining up will mean but I don't read that, so you shouldn't do things that I don't like (that were allowed for in the Ts and Cs)"?

    Sure, Ts and Cs are generally impenetrable by the general public but for that I blame more the legal profession, not the corporation, which (by and large) has to work within this framework that case law, precedence, courts etc have established.

    Despite recognising the importance of Plain English, many legal professionals I believe simply cannot adopt it, because the meaning of the text is very specifically conveyed by the particular words chosen. As a result, surely the law would have to be the most un-user friendly industry around?

    Thanks for the chance to share my (unfortunately long) thoughts,

  2. Hi Jessica,

    "... is it not our responsibility as consumers to do so".

    Indeed it is, which is the devil of it! Because, of course, very few of us do accept this responsibility, and we're not likely to change. This has been on my mind lately as I've been reading Adam Greenfield's "Everyware: the Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing".

    As these capabilities become more pervasive, it seems to me that it's becoming increasingly apparent that we're woefully unprepared to deal with the issues of privacy and consent right now - and I wonder how we'll manage in 5 years' time when the information trail we each create is far richer and far more amenable to access, analysis and manipulation.

    I'll be speaking to Adam about Everyware in the not too distant future for UXpod, so I'm hoping it will be a thought-provoking subject!

  3. Undoubtedly Woolworths is tracking your purchases and if they're sensible they'll use it to make relevant offers to you. That way you won't get offers for nappies if you don't but them, but you might get offers for deodorant if you do. Retailers who use the data wisely will know that you're less likely to unsubscribe or see it as spam if it's relevant to you. And if you don't like that idea you can always opt out.

    Woolworths will also appreciate that it's going to end up in tears for all concerned if they do the wrong thing by you with the data.

    I think most Australian households these days understand that retailers are actively collecting information on the buying habits of their customers. And I think they are also comfortable as long as the retailers are respectful of their customers with that data. In that regard Woolworths are just following the example set by others in the same space - FlyBuys and Myer being prominent examples.

  4. Hi Gerry

    I think you're spot on.

    Looking forward to the podcast!


  5. Hi again Gerry

    Just saw this and thought of you:

    Shows how trusting we really are.