We're used to being watched when we shop. Cookies track our every move online, and salespeople follow us around high-end stores. But many retailers are taking spying to a creepy new level, notes ShopSmart, the shopping magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports.
What they are: High-resolution video cameras monitor all areas in and outside the store. The footage is then stored and catalogued. With facial recognition software, your mug shot can be filed digitally without your knowledge or permission. Ditto for your car's license plate.
What's creepy about them: Gaze trackers are hidden in tiny holes in the shelving and detect which brands you're looking at and for how long. There are even mannequins whose eyes are cameras that detect the age, sex, ethnicity and facial expressions of passers-by.
What's in it for you: Stores use video customer counts to set staffing and reduce cashier line backups. The system can also nab shoplifters and identity thieves.
What it is: Your mobile phone is an excellent device for tracking your shopping route. So retailers and malls are beginning to monitor all visitors' cell signals, which help create "heat maps" that glow red where the most foot traffic is -- perfect for showing where to best place displays, in-store ads and high-margin merchandise.
What's creepy about it: Technology giant Cisco is testing a system at an undisclosed store. It automatically detects your mobile device and connects you to the retailer's free Wi-Fi network, which can detect when you search other online sellers for lower prices. If you check prices online while you're in the store, you might get messages that the store will match the lower prices you find.
What's in it for you: Stores can use the information to improve service. Also, you can get coupons and discounts.
Who's using it: Lots of retailers and malls have Wi-Fi networks.
What it is: On-screen video ads you look at might be looking right back at you. Tiny pinhole cameras can be built into the monitor. Facial detection technology determines your age group, sex, ethnicity and maybe even your mood, so it can serve up a message targeted to you. Radio-frequency identification tags placed on the merchandise detect when you pick up an item.
What's creepy about it: Not only are stores doing little or nothing to disclose that signs are watching you, some privacy advocates also fear that the technology could be used for discriminatory pricing based on age, sex or ethnicity.
What's in it for you: Ads can be more targeted to your needs.
Who's using it: Vendors, analysts and critics say big retail chains commonly use digital signage, but the stores ShopSmart checked either denied it or didn't respond to inquiries.
What they are: Stores have been monitoring and tracking returns and exchanges for years to identify and prevent the 1 percent that are fraudulent. Now some stores are rewarding the honest 99 percent of customers who return items with special offers to encourage them to spend their refund in the store.
What's creepy about it: The reward is designed to appeal to you, based on statistical models that predict consumer behavior.
What's in it for you: Money-saving opportunities, if you can resist buying stuff you don't need.
Who's using them: The Retail Equation, which markets the system to stores, did not return ShopSmart's repeated phone calls.
By the Editors of Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org).