Stephanie Smith: So who’s watching you while you shop - and why?

Is there a hidden camera lurking on the shelves as you shop, capturing your every movement and expression, helping to manipulate you into buying more stuff?
Is there a hidden camera lurking on the shelves as you shop, capturing your every movement and expression, helping to manipulate you into buying more stuff?
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Ever get the feeling you are being watched as you shop? Well, yes, you know you are. There are CCTV security cameras everywhere, usually high up on walls or on the ceiling, looking out for shoplifters, but you’re not about to shoplift so no worries.

But what about hidden cameras on the shelves, perhaps in the make-up aisles, at face height, filming your pouts and preens as you try on a lipstick, or the pets aisle, capturing your every emotion as you decide whether or not to buy your cat a treat? This, apparently, is what has been happening in some of our leading supermarkets and stores, according to a report by the Daily Mail into the work of behaviour analyst agency SBXL – it stands for Shopping Behaviour Xplained Ltd (analysis must have told them that “explained” no longer begins with an E). SBXL helps retailers with research and analysis of shopping habits, hiring out psychologists to shed light on the mind of the customer. “Filming Based Shopper Observation”, it says, “helps to measure actual behaviour, uncover implicit motivations” for “game-changing shopper insights that generate positive shopper engagement and help you sell more product”. Wow. But what about the small matter of privacy and data protection? Someone’s face, for example, is personal data. SBXL said adequate signage was in place and consent sought from customers for filming, but an undercover reporter did some (presumably secret, non-permissioned) filming too and captured the sales chief saying shoppers do not know they are being filmed. Now the Information Commissioner’s Office says it will examine the newspaper’s findings to check for potential breaches of data protection law.

Would I mind being filmed for research purposes? I don’t think so, although I’m not sure anyone would glean much from my erratic shopping behaviour (no doubt dropping the cat chocolate and pelting over to the milk aisle), other than that I have the attention span of a budgerigar. But I would expect to see the footage and be asked before it was used for any training purposes, so I trust and hope this is what always happens.

However, many people would and do feel uncomfortable with being used as research, whether being covertly filmed or having online activity tracked, analysed and used to push products. And this happens all the time, without our informed consent, as part of marketing strategies by media platforms and some of our most trusted retail brands.

Isn’t it ironic that, in using human psychology to understand human behaviour, what is actually forgotten is the human being?