Thursday, 16 April 2009

Ocado is watching you

In today's Daily Mail, Hilary Freeman writes of her bemusement, then her concern, at the fact that online grocer Ocado somehow sussed out that she was Jewish and as a result sent her an email wishing her a happy Passover last week. She figures that the supermarket came to this realisation because of her past purchases of gefilte fish, which she generously terms "a Jewish delicacy". (There's nothing delicate about gefilte fish, believe you me--and I actually like the stuff.)

Such knowledge on the part of retailers, Freeman concludes, is the price we pay for the nice discounts and promotions they give us as part of our membership in their loyalty schemes. This isn't news to those of us in the marketing industry, of course.

But what was eye-opening, at least to me, was the vitriol directed toward loyalty programmes in the online comments about the article. "You are at fault for having store loyalty cards. The cards store information on everthing you purchase. The State in the guise of the police have access to all these loyalty cards under anti-terrorism legislation. Everything using a computer leaves an electronic fingerprint and all this information is now stored by the State," wrote one commentator. "Just cut the stupid cards up. The discounts that the companies give you back is money that they have taken off you in the first place," typed another. The number of commenters urging their comrades to shred their loyalty cards far outnumbered those who didn't mind disclosing some personal information in exchange for vouchers and discounts.

I think that as marketers, we tend to assume that consumers don't mind sharing their name, address, and a few other details in exchange for some perks. And that may be true--at first. But once they realise that by giving up a handful of details they're actually enabling companies to gather a lorry load of personal data, many feel betrayed. The loyalty programme ends up becoming a disloyalty programme. (For the record, Freeman says she did not buy any of her Passover supplies from Ocado--although she did purchase an Easter egg.)

The solution? Perhaps it's not to be overly forward. In the Ocado-Passover case, perhaps the supermarket would have been wise not to push forward with a "happy holiday" greeting in Hebrew but to have taken a lower-key approach, sending an email to a broader group of customers with one link for Easter offers and another for Passover promotions. I don't think any of Ocado's Jewish customers would boycott the company for failing to extend a Passover greeting. But having read the Mail commenters, I do believe some would avoid shopping at Ocado for fear of providing more fodder to Big Brother.--SC

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