Attention, Shoppers: You're Being Watched

New technology lets retailers cater to customer habits.

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In this week's issue of the magazine, I write about a new trend in retail: stores willing to customize products to your specifications instead of selling the same thing to everyone. Examples include wine, M&Ms, jewelry, and sneakers. There was one development that didn't make it into the article—RFID tags that let companies know exactly who you are and where you're looking.

Researcher and consultant Amudhanvel "Vel" Dhinagaravel says that in the not-so-distant future, we'll all have some kind of card in our wallets that lets stores know when we walk in. The stores will then customize their advertising to target whoever is walking by. Imagine, for example, that you often buy high-end orange juice. When you walk into a store, the displays post advertisements for expensive orange juice listed at full price. But when someone else—who tends to go for discount orange juice—walks by, the advertisements switch to emphasize sales in the orange juice section.

If this concept makes you uncomfortable because it sounds a bit too much like Big Brother watching your every move, you can take comfort in two facts: First, you are not alone. Companies are well aware that consumers don't like the feeling that they are being watched, so will very likely tread carefully. Second, this "new" technology isn't really that new. If you have a loyalty card at a grocery store, for example, the company is already tracking your purchases and marketing to you accordingly. Coupons at the end of receipts are often tailored to customers based on their purchases. So, in some ways, Big Brother is already watching.

What do you think—is new technology like this creepy or useful?