Corporate Snooping on Consumers

You've heard of the Little Shop of Horrors, but now comes the Little Boutique of Retail Ethnography.

"Retail ethnography" is a bit of corporate gobbledygook that essentially means spying, prying, snooping, and generally intruding into the private lives of us consumers. It sprang from a simpler, more honest process called "market research," involving taking consumer surveys and asking customers directly about their opinions of products and such. But, now, this research has gotten sneakier and darker.

Instead of being aboveboard with shoppers, retail ethnography is the underhanded art of surveillance, using all of the latest technological gadgetry to monitor shoppers clandestinely. Hidden video cameras and microphones are computerized to "track" individual customers as they move through a store, identifying them by their body temperature and mapping their movements by passing them from camera to camera. If a customer lingers over a product, the cameras zoom in to record facial expressions.

The latest advance in the "intrusion explosion," as columnist William Safire has dubbed it, is a recently-opened Minneapolis boutique called Once Famous. Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times reports that this inviting shop, filled with artsy, upscale home furnishings is really not in the business of selling ... but of spying. It's a front, set up by Omnicom Group Inc.--a global advertising giant.

Once Famous looks like a real store with clerks selling products to customers. But it's really a surveillance lab that's totally wired so analysts can watch the shoppers from a hidden control room. Manufacturers pay a fee to put a product in the store, then watch the video of customer reactions to the product. Most shoppers have no idea that their every movement is being recorded, analyzed ... and sold.

This is Jim Hightower saying ... Sadly, under current law, this commercialized invasion of our privacy is legal. To change these laws, contact Privacy Rights Clearinghouse at


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