Who's That Customer?

Who's that customer? That's the question at the heart of all the tracking that online retailers have done, first in e-commerce and now in mobile commerce. The cookie seemed like the perfect solution—an involuntary loyalty card e-tailers slipped into the shopper's virtual pocket. But cookies have two problems: First, they've become the poster child of legal efforts aimed at protecting online customer privacy. And second, they just don't work very well on mobile.

That has led some retailers—including 1800Flowers—to consider alternatives, including "fingerprinting," which doesn't touch a shopper's computer, tablet or phone at all. Instead, it involves collecting all the technical details that browsers reveal and trying to guess whether they match those of previous customers. With even a relatively small collection of browser data, shoppers can be identified with 95 percent accuracy or better.

No virtual loyalty card here—it's more like the small shopkeeper who knows most of his customers by sight. He may occasionally get one wrong, but to most customers, mistaken identity feels a lot less threatening than a bug planted to track them wherever they go.

It's that threatened feeling that's at the heart of customers' privacy concerns, and the legal hand waving that's come out of it. But there's a bigger problem for mobile merchants: Every retail transaction is based on trust. If a customer doesn't trust a retailer, why do business? If your customers feel threatened, you've failed as a retailer.

And anything you do to identify customers that's sneaky will eventually destroy the trust you depend on.

Privacy policies aren't much help in that regard. They're typically written in legalese and include terrifying laundry lists of all the ways that a web or mobile commerce site might collect customer information—and all the information that might conceivably be collected. No customer walking into a brick-and-mortar store is subjected to that. If they were, they'd turn around and walk out.

But they don't. They assume the security cameras are for spotting shoplifters and finding lost children, the associates' questions are for helping shoppers find what they're looking for, and if a store employee recognizes the shopper, it's to welcome them back and offer help.

How can mobile retailers get customers to feel that same way about their m-commerce experience?

Why not just say it?

Instead of just offering a privacy policy—which is typically buried on the mobile site anyway—that begins with frightening legal language, why not also flash every shopper a bright, clear message when she arrives at the site that says, "We work hard to recognize and welcome every customer, and to help you find what you're looking for. If you'd prefer that we not do that, please tap here now. You can also read our privacy policy here. To continue shopping, tap here."

Then, if the customer opts out, don't fingerprint or use cookies or offer any suggestions or recommendations. Just let her navigate on her own. Some shoppers will be happier that way.

But most won't. They're accustomed to all that help, and they like the personalized attention as long as it doesn't get too pushy or intrusive. And because you've framed it as a desire to recognize, welcome and help—not track, bug and spy—you're building on what they've expected from stores all their lives.

You've given them a reason for wanting to know who that customer is—and you've taken away a reason not to trust you. Whatever technologies you're using, that's what retail is all about.