Public or private?

Last night, I found someone else's shopping list.

I was making my way through the produce section when I looked in my cart, and there it was. Stuck to the in-store circular on two Post-It notes.

And you know what? It stopped me in my tracks. Maybe I'm just nosy, but I felt compelled to stand there, read it, and imagine an entire life story about the person who wrote it.

Now I suppose the list wasn't all that unique. Milk, OJ, bread, cheese. Bor-ing. But I couldn't help digging deeper. What tidbits could I glean about the author of this list? Who was this woman?

And I was sure it was a woman. Most shoppers are women, the handwriting was feminine, and the way it was stuck to the coupon pages – oh yes. This was a money-saving mom with a family at home. I know that part because she was buying "Lunch," which consisted of "3-4 Red Box." That sounded like juiceboxes to me. Though why only 3-4? There are five schooldays in a week. Maybe her kids buy lunch on Fridays?

Or maybe she wasn't a mom. Maybe she was getting frozen insta-lunches and they come in a red box. Because I noted that while lunch and dinner were present, breakfast was conspicuously absent. Does she skip breakfast? Maybe she's a busy career woman. A Starbucks drive-thru kind of gal. Maybe she wrote the list, and her assistant is doing the shopping!

Though she was definitely planning an event. Maybe a barbecue. That would explain the burgers, buns, lettuce and tomato. And two items were added in red, chips and salsa and two soups. She must have noted those down at the last minute. Does she keep a red pen in her car? Is she a schoolteacher? Why was she having a barbecue when it's 40 degrees outside anyway? What will she cook with the chicken stock? WHAT'S INSIDE THE RED BOX?

All this went through my head in a matter of seconds. It was surprisingly intimate. I felt a little guilty, like I had violated this person’s privacy. Like I'd peered in her closet or dug through her fridge.

But it was also intriguing. Knowing the personal details of someone else's life is strangely fascinating. And a shopping list contains lots of these little clues. Because what we buy is a direct reflection of who we are. Are we brand-conscious? Price-conscious? Health-conscious? Impulsive? Consistent? Lactose-intolerant? I could speculate for hours about this woman's job, family, appearance, cooking abilities, social life, budget and values.

But here's the question of the hour. Do you think she would mind?


Privacy is simultaneously becoming more and less important these days. Because as a society, our trust in each other is getting paradoxically larger and smaller.

On the one hand, some types of information are becoming more public. Our likes and dislikes, our jobs and hobbies, even our love lives and biggest secrets are being put on display. We all want to know more about each other; there's something in human nature that compels us to seek this out. And our desire is being met with increasingly “real” versions of real life - from the Jennicam to Justin Kan's life on camera. There’s a popular Flickr group called What's In Your Bag, where people spill, sort and photograph the items in their purses. You might be asking yourself, who cares what's in my bag? But trust me. People do.

On the other hand, some types of information are becoming more private. Our social security numbers, sure. But also our email addresses, our receipts and our mail. Privacy is now a big deal on a national scale. Fears about identity theft and government security and "the dangers of the internet" run rampant, especially with older generations. We all have 37 different passwords. The shredder market is booming.

Now the store is a great arena to watch this all play out. The information at stake is simply, "what we buy." Should what we buy be public or private?

Well, the items in our cart are on full display. We don't own them, and everyone can see them. They are public. Yet when we get to the checkout, we don't like other people staring at them. They are put in bags. Now they are private. But once we unpack, some of us write the items up on our shopping blogs. And others leave lists in their carts. So in one sense, maybe we don't mind our purchases being public.

But if the main trend is transparency, its countertrend is an increased concern for privacy. Because here's what many people don't know. Stores collect personal data on what we buy. If you've ever shopped with a loyalty card, like the Tesco Clubcard or the CVS Extra Care card, you have shared your purchase information with the store. The same personal tidbits that I saw on the list, but with greater accuracy, scale and detail. (They know, for instance, what's in the red box). Stores record our purchase behavior, and pass it onto companies like dunnhumby, who use it to conduct "relevance marketing." In other words, our unknowing card swipes are helping them make all sorts of decisions about products, prices and in-store advertising. They can slice and dice their customer base to their pie chart's delight. It's powerful data.

But is this an invasion of privacy? Some people say it is. These folks opt not to use loyalty cards, and their purchases remain anonymous. But guess what - they lose out on the savings that cardholders enjoy. And I don't think that's fair.

So just like the choice at the end, "Paper or plastic," I believe we should be given a choice up front: "Public or private?" And stores should work to give both kinds of shoppers an experience that meets their needs.

Shoppers who "go public" can elect to share what they buy with, well, everyone. Their shopping lists are on full display, broadcast throughout the store with their personal profiles. They sign up for free samples of products they enjoy, see where they rank in shopping contests, create universal wish lists, and see what they've bought in the past. They give feedback on products, get recruited for market research, and discuss favorites with fellow customers. They essentially live lives of shopping transparency. These are all natural desires, and the stores should help fulfill them. But the one thing "public" shoppers shouldn't get is a price break.

Likewise, shoppers who "go private" can elect not to share what they buy with, well, anyone. They push around carts with opaque covers, so that nobody can see their items. Their receipts are blank except for the price. They are happy to get what they need, while remaining respectfully anonymous. And they aren't docked financially for feeling this way.

Because while I don't think that money is the best way to incentivize people to share, it's the tactic du jour for getting shoppers to give their demographic information up front, and their purchase information over time. Rather, shoppers who want to go public should be given channels to share, and shoppers who want to stay private should be equally accommodated. The store would save money on all those coupons, too.

As the privacy wars are waged on nearly every front, and a new generation grows up with high expectations for transparency, the question of To Share or Not To Share may well perplex leaders in every industry. I wonder what retail will do. Because right now, we are seeing Privacy 1.0. A couple pennies saved by a bunch of naive consumers. Rather, I envision a space where we choose all sorts of privacy preferences, and customize our sharing options in every store.


So, do you think the anonymous shopper would have minded that I was poring over her list? She left it in a public place, after all, and I suppose my snooping was harmless enough. Would she care if I posted it on my blog? What if I started sending her coupons for chicken stock? Would she mind if I lumped her into a "shopper demographic" and made money off my knowledge of her choices?

This is where it gets tricky. It's a soft line between what's okay to share and what's not. But it's a hard line between using someone's info for entertainment, and using that info for profit. So my guess is, no, she wouldn't have minded that. But she might mind this. I'm sorry, anonymous shopper. Your story just had to be told. Maybe next time, you won't leave your list in the cart.


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