When does retail data gathering become creepy?

Marketing pros test consumers' limits at CES 2016 panel

LAS VEGAS — Brands use big data to collect as much information as they can about consumers to give them a more personalized experience when shopping. But when does the monitoring become too much?

During OMD Oasis’ "Technology and Retail" panel at CES 2016 Wednesday, marketing and tech specialists described clear benefits to retail customers of data-collection technology. However, their assessments turned more subjective when discussing where to draw the line on data gathering.

Doug Zarkin, vice president and head of marketing at Pearle Vision, acknowledged that his company’s online video ads can seem a bit uncanny when they provide consumers with location-based suggestions about the closest store and next available appointments. "It’s a little spooky how detailed it is," Zarkin said, "but it speeds up the process in getting the care to the consumers and making them buy."

And high tech can even humanize the retail experience, said Manolo Almagro, senior managing director of technology and innovation at retail marketing agency TPN Retail. For example, kiosks can use facial recognition "to customize what people are interacting with in real time at places like Best Buy. We try to put the humanity back into the retail experience by using the technology we have," Almegro said.

Julie Fleisher, managing director of OMD's retailer practice, said consumers’ perception of intrusiveness depended on the purpose of collecting the data. It becomes "creepy" when detailed information is used to benefit media and advertising, not address customers’ needs, Fleisher said. "When we’re helping customers, we’re serving them."

Heads of brands like EyeQ, PetSmart, TPN Retail and more also discussed the shifting balance between digital and physical experiences in retail. While mobile and social platforms provide easier, quicker ways for consumers to purchase products, brick-and-mortar stores are far from obsolete.

"Our stores have grooming salons, training lessons and doggy daycare," said Debbie Beisswanger, senior director of marketing at PetSmart. "We see that as a huge opportunity for loyal consumers to visit us continuously. You come into the store with your pet to have an experience, and you can’t get that online."

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