WSJ Report: Companies Step Up Efforts to Get You to Cough Up Your Data, in the Face of Policy Changes by Apple and Google

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The Wall Street Journal reported on new efforts companies are making to hoover up your personal data, in the wake of privacy laws enacted in California and Europe, combined with Apple’s new policy on how its users can be tracked, plus a similar pending change by Google (see WSJ, Big Tech Privacy Moves Spur Companies to Amass Customer Data).

Data gathering has long been a priority, as companies believe it allows them to target ads more effectively. These government and big Tech changes are prodding companies to step up their efforts to get you to hand over your data “voluntarily”. Per the WSJ:

So brands are deploying an array of tactics to persuade users to surrender data to the brand itself—loyalty programs, sweepstakes, newsletters, quizzes, polls and QR codes, those pixelated black-and-white squares that have become ubiquitous during the pandemic.

Avocados From Mexico, a nonprofit marketing organization that represents avocado growers and packers, is encouraging people to submit grocery receipts to earn points exchangeable for avocado-themed sportswear.

It is also conducting a contest for the chance to win a truck. To enter, consumers scan QR codes on in-store displays and enter their name, birthday, email and phone number.

“We have a limited window to figure this out, and everybody’s scrambling” to do so, said Ivonne Kinser, vice president of marketing for the avocado group. It has managed to capture roughly 50 million device IDs—the numbers associated with mobile devices—and is working to link them to names and email addresses. The group plans to use the customer information for ad targeting and to make its ads more relevant to its customers.

Amassing data is costly, requiring both complex software and expertise in data science. Moreover, the databases companies are building are paltry, compared to those already assembled by the usual big Tech suspects. This means that in the near-term at least, companies will still be forced to advertise with Amazon, Facebook, and Google, so as to avail themselves of their superiors databases.

The WSJ provided a peek into how companies convince you to hand over your data:

Molson has conducted more than 300 data-collection efforts this year, including sweepstakes and contests at bars around the country. Many customers signing up in the contests agree to let the brewer store their information and use it for marketing purposes.

“You could think it’s a bad thing, like, we’re trying to access people’s information, but people actually have no problem sharing that information because they’re getting a benefit out of it as well,” said Sofia Colucci, global vice president of marketing for the Miller family of brands.

The Milwaukee-based brewer currently has more than a million customer profiles and says it is hoping to increase that to at least 13 million by 2025.

Now, I admit that I occasionally supply some of my own data when companies ask. And I note that unless one were to make all purchases in cash, eschewing all digital and online transactions, one must accept that data is being generated that someone will seek to exploit. Online, I succumb to company requests for data when I want to to get access to discounts and advance notice of promotions by some specialty websites I frequent. But, there’s nothing that says the data I supply has to be complete – I usually skip right over including my birthdate and this thus far hasn’t prevented from registering. Nor accurate, for that matter – at least in the way a company might prefer. I don’t always supply my correct name, but register as one of my many avatars. If my experience is close to the norm, that means that companies are collecting corrupted, inaccurate data. I’m not sure how much that matters, for advertising purposes, however.

The little snippets aren’t what companies seek anyway. I’m not a habitual smartphone user.  And for a long time, I relied on a dumbphone  only, for calls and occasional short texts. Now that the pandemic has stranded me in the U.S., I’ve acquired a basic prepaid smartphone. But I use it for calls only. No apps. No emails. Don’t text me. I don’t read them and I certainly don’t reply. I do engage in on-line transactions, but as before, any of those go through my laptop only. So no smatrtphone is assembling a digital record of the stores I visit in person or the transactions I engage in.

I learned from the WSK that my experience is far from the norm:

Companies aren’t after just a few personal details. Many aim to log most of the interactions they have with customers, to flesh out what is called a “golden record.”

Such a high-quality customer record might include dozens, even hundreds, of data points, including the store locations people visit, the items they typically buy, how much they spend and what they do on the company’s website.

This kind of information doesn’t just help with online-ad targeting but also lets brands personalize other parts of their marketing, from the offers they send people to which products are displayed to customers online.

Lest you think I’m sounding a bit smug and out of touch, I’m well aware I haven’t escaped the clutches of company marketers entirely, as I’m a member of many loyalty programs, largely travel-related. And in fact, I must make an unavoidable trip to LA later this month, and I’ll use airmiles to do so, and stay at a hotel using loyalty program benefits. I’ve belonged to such programs from a time long before the internet and online transactions became such a big phenomenon. Seeing the lengths companies are now going to slice and dice my data and manipulate me, has made me more aware of theses goings on – as well as determined not to share details about myself. Why should I help companies elude data protection laws? Per the WSJ;

Companies in retail, travel and hospitality are well positioned to harvest data because they deal directly with consumers. Many such companies have long invested in loyalty programs that offer perks such as fare discounts or hotel-room upgrades, and have already built customer databases for personalizing marketing.

Dining chain Chili’s Grill & Bar has about nine million active loyalty members, and its records contain about 50 different bits of information, including how many times a person ordered certain foods such as burgers, fajitas, ribs or a kids meal, the company said. Chili’s also has some emails, phone numbers and purchase history for 50 million customers who aren’t active loyalty members, which it can use for ad targeting.

In an example of how the data help to tailor messages, ads sent to someone who frequently orders appetizers might say, “Come in for a free app,” said Michael Breed, senior vice president of marketing at Chili’s, which is owned by Brinker International Inc.  He credits the chain’s stash of customer data for helping avoid major fallout from the policy change Apple made.

Some of these efforts are just plain creepy:

Some retailers that saw a surge in online sales early in the pandemic supercharged their data collection. “It allowed companies in a very natural way to know a lot more about you,” said Chris Chapo, former vice president of advanced analytics for Amperity, a marketing technology firm.

In 2020, Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. added 8.5 million new loyalty-program members, or athletes, as it calls them. The company has more than 20 million loyalty members.

Dick’s loyalty-member profiles can include up to 325 data points and customer traits. These include the purchases members make, whether they have children, what draws their attention on the website, how much they have spent with Dick’s over 12 months and what is their “lifetime value”—an estimate of how much they will eventually spend with the company.

The Bottom Line

I don’t know about you, but being reduced to a ‘lifetime value’ of what we might spend with a company seems to devalue our worth as consumers, leading companies to skimp on supplying quality products and responsive customer service to all customers.

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  1. Questa Nota

    That lifetime value concept has been in use in the financial world for decades. Variations of the truism were that 80%, or 90%, of the customers provided 120%, or 110%, of the profit and the remainder ate that up through losses.

    Does your bank consider you a remainder, or a useless eater? Since this is annual data privacy mailer season, review yours and opt out where you can.

  2. Cleaven

    I don’t know why I’m supposed to care. Even assuming the most intrusive surveillance like being able to watch me in real time, these companies are just going to find out I waste a lot of my life on stupid crap when I’m not working. I suspect that’s how it is for the vast majority of fellow boring people. Oh no?

    1. Mikel

      It’s about the price they want to show you vs someone else for the same product or service. Think about it. You don’t or can’t walk in a store where everyone sees the same price. What are the opportunites for the seller?

      May be a good time to shore up relationships with relatives and friends of in various locations and of various economic status.

      1. Mantid

        Yes Mikel. Not caring is a victory for “them”. Everything is a question of priorities. If someone needs to go to the water closet, there’s not much time to waste. I can’t imagine a person not caring and leaving their windows wide open, curtains open, keys in the car and doors unlocked. But if not caring is a priority, then as the Beatles sang, let it be.

        1. Christopher Horne

          ….Plus, there’s always a chance that the companies might
          turn over your data to the Government.

      2. John Zelnicker

        December 3, 2021 at 11:24 am

        Online sellers are already showing different prices depending on from where you access their web site.

        And, sometimes their servers are a bit slow.

        I brought up a Home Depot page and couple of years ago and I watched the prices change as the page loaded.

        It likely took their servers a few moments to figure out I was logging in from a zip code considered upper middle to upper class; the changes were all increases.

  3. Carla

    “and stay at a hotel using loyalty program benefits.”

    But will it have windows that open? When we have to travel, I always ask this now, so that I can air out the room on arrival, and crack windows if we choose to have any guests in the room. We also nix housekeeping for the length of our stay.

    But very few hotel chains have operable windows. I have found them mostly at B&B’s and of course, old, small “inns.”

    Must say, too, travel is much less pleasurable now that dining in at restaurants is off our agenda.

    1. Frances

      Like L.A. County that requires everyone have a smart phone, QR code etc to enter a restaurant. Plenty of other counties to vacation in.

  4. Mikel

    Yes, the surveillance of purchases will increase with the desparation to turn profits.
    Expect more varying on-screen prices based on where you live, work, shop, etc. Anything to squeeze a penny.

    Was just reading this:

    TPTB are very concerned about people having savings that prevents them from taking on horrible working conditions and low pay.
    At the same time more people are retiring. Many of those who can even think about total retirement have been basing their future plans on bubble market years.

    Grab your popcorn….

    1. lordkoos

      As the ongoing project of making Americans poorer continues, the search for profits will only intensify. This will favor high-volume operations like Amazon and Walmart who can afford slimmer profit margins.

  5. Mantid

    A “Lifetime Value”? Are you serious?? How about a “Deathtime Value”. Combined with the all too fashionable mandates that we are imposing on ourselves, this scenario is not far fetched. Insurance provider: “We see you’ve been pounding down beers and fries at Chillis on (various dates).” You: “But I need this kidney replacement or I’ll die”. Insurance: “Your policy states that obesity is grounds for a review of the necessity for specific operations such as those you have requested. We will send your request to our review board, so just wait right there”.

  6. Ranger Rick

    I see it in the discount cards from grocery stores. I’m saving money, so at least I get something out of it, but I can’t help but feel a small frisson of anxiety when I get home from a shopping trip and see ads for products I just purchased.

    1. lordkoos

      A weird thing happened to me a couple of days ago — I was talking on the phone to a friend about mushroom hunting for Matsutakes (also known as the pine mushroom) which can be found in the woods around here. We both have smartphones, but neither of us own Alexa-type listening devices. Later that day I’m watching something on youtube (but not logged in) and a video about Matsutakes comes up in the sidebar. I mentioned this to my friend and he said “I think A.I. is always listening”. I found this creepy as hell and the only way I can explain it is that my friend’s smartphone is not secure(?) Myself, I use the phone only for calls, texts, and podcasts, and use the web only for looking at weather or traffic.

  7. Synoia

    Britain’s apparently accidental bombing of Berlin, which led to Hitler retaliating with the Blitz (which ironically was a significant contributor to Germany’s defeat; the Blitz halted the German campaign to destroy RAF planes and airstrips).

    We were taught that was Churchill’s ‘s polic, and was no accident.

    1. vlade


      The accidental bombing was German, on the August 24th , when a bunch of planes dumped bombs on London by mistake. The UK on Churchill’s orders retaliated by a night raid on August 25th on Berlin (there could not be accidental bombing of Berlin, Berlin was pretty much at the extreme range or British bombers)

      Since it was a massive humiliation – Goering said when the war started “If one enemy bomb falls on Ruhr, you can call me Meyer” *), Hitler ordered the Baedeker raids, aka Blitz. Mind you, at that time Goering was telling Hitler that RAF was done for, down to its last 100 or so planes… For the nth time.

      TBH, a number of historians now believe that even if Germans didn’t switch, it would not have changed the outcome materially, as the chances of a successful Sea Lion (invasion of the UK) were about zero.

      *) this is frequently misquoted as Berlin, but it was Ruhr. It was in 1939 in a speech to Luftwaffe.

      1. David

        Yes, the British had plans to move the RAF to airfields further north, beyond the range of the escorting fighters, although they didn’t need to. It’s not at all clear how serious Opeation Sea Lion actually was, or if Hitler even knew.

  8. Keith McClary

    Could this be why many news websites that I frequent are recently requiring a free account just to read them?

    1. Yves Smith

      You can often get a read or two by clearing their cookies, or alternatively, trying another browser (which presumably won’t have those cookies in it).

      Sometimes you can get access if you Google the topic or headline and go through the Google link or similarly access it through a tweet. Not sayin’ you should do this much work on a regular basis but once in a while you might want to get at one of those articles.

  9. Dave in Austin

    Re Mikel’s comment that the data collection is about: “the price they want to show you vs someone else for the same product or service”

    I use three different browsers. The price I’m shown on an old Opera, Mozilla Foxfire and Google Chrome are often different. Why? Because the demographics and apparently the information users have are often different. I also wonder if having multiple browsers open can be monitored- and monitorized.

    The bottom line for the seller is: “Is this guy a mark, an easy sell?” Much of the discourse around the different car prices whites and blacks pay is caused by the salesman checking out the prospect. My advise? Always carry a clipboard and ask questions. Oddly, the sales people relax. They still want a sale. You are just an informed consumer so they don’t have to perform.

    1. cnchal

      > I also wonder if having multiple browsers open can be monitored . . .

      Yes. A web page detects the browser used, device and IP address, so three browsers coming from the same device and IP address could be noted. Why you would be shown three different prices in that scenario is a question beter answered by someone else?

      Of the three I’m curious which one got the low price and high price? Personally I think this dynamic priceing tactic to squeeze people is extremely unethical, but that’s nothing new in an ethics challenged world. I hate writing this but there ought to be a law against it. Show everybody the same price or else big fines, paid to the buyers. Turn customers into bounty hunters and that crap would stop in an instant..

    2. Bart Hansen

      After version 12 Opera went off the rails. For a while I used Chrome until I learned that a breakaway group from Opera were working a new browser, Vivaldi. I now use that one.

      1. Oh

        Now Google’s happily collecting your info directly with Chrome :(
        I use Opera with VPN on and I don’t know what you mean when you say “It went off the rails”

  10. drumlin woodchuckles

    When I signed up for a loyalty card at Krogers many years ago, I gave a false name and address. And I often pay in just cash.

    So if the Mexico Avocado marketing group is now sucking up data from my Kroger loyalty card associated purchases, then I will just siimply have to use cash every time I buy Mexican avocadoes at Krogers, ( This clever dodge might be another reason the Lords of Credit and Dataveillance might be trying to outlaw cash . . . to close off avenues of escape just like this one).

    Of course, if I were to buy American avocadoes, I would sidestep this particular little Mexico Avocado problem. Unless, of course, the outsourcing of avocadoes to Mexico has succeeded in totally exterminating the Avocado growing industry in America, which was the whole purpose of outsourcing Avocado production to Mexico.

    1. Christopher Horne

      Yuh, avocados. That’s a separate moral issue, along with almonds.
      So much water to produce them. Tasty, though.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Well, if no more water is used than is restored by the water cycle in that area, then the moral question does not come up because no water mining is being conducted. That means fewer avocados and almonds, though.

        The water that goes through them comes back out as evapotranspiration, and back into the planetary water cycle. Other water then cycles back to the avocado/almond growth zone. If that is respected, that puts a hard cap on the amount of avocados/almonds growable in California.

        Wet Florida used to grow avocados, until it became ” un-economic”. The right laws could make it “economic” again.

        1. Christopher Horne

          Baycakes, we’re talkin’ the Imperial valley in Eastern California.
          the world’s poster child for water abuse. In some places the ground
          has sunk more than 30 feet due to groundwater extraction.
          The farmers there get 75% of all California’s water, and it still
          isn’t enough. Years of drought are followed by years of too much
          rain, and it still isn’t enough for the MegaFarms. This is serious
          abuse of a precious resource, a true, deliberate moral crime.
          And California taxpayers always bail them out.
          Do get your facts straight, please.

    2. coboarts

      I grew up with avocado trees, 45 of them. We lived in El Cajon, CA. At the other end of the flume road, the large N/S road is named Avocado. The major E/W ridge road above is named, Fuerte. Our trees were Fuerte Avocados. This was the primary avocado producing region in the US if not the world, at the time. Of course, San Diego County property values soared, so raising avocados on $ land, no go. The avocados moved to incredibly steep hillsides further east, proving the viability of drip irrigation. Conflating growing avocados with growing almonds in the central valley is pathetic at best. We learned how to grow fully productive trees on tiny sips of water. And Mexico didn’t steal anything. Their aguacates are where we got our avocados from. The Haas variety, that which you mostly find now in stores, was developed in LA, as Wukchum…has previously stated.

      1. Christopher Horne

        One gallon of water per seed (almonds are not nuts). That’s a serious
        Water Crime. And most of the almonds go to China.

  11. Henry Moon Pie

    I’ve needed new glasses for quite a while, but Covid fears were keeping me away from the optometrists. So freshly boosted with my chances of Covid landing me in the hospital supposedly at a minimum, I made an appointment with a Lenscrafters-affiliated opto.

    I was supposed to fill out an online form prior to the appointment, but when I checked it out, I decided to cancel. It must have been produced by the individual optometrist because the quality and style of the form might have sufficed in 1995, but not now. The form not only asked for birthdate, address and SS number but also wanted a medical history more complete than the forms doctors’ offices require. For an eye check? Really? And nothing about what the data would be used for or how it would be protected.

    So I’m looking for an eye exam whose optometrist won’t be so data hungry.

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