Guest Column | June 13, 2022

How Retailers Can Transition From The Surveillance Economy To The Trust Economy

By Angel Maldonado, Empathy

Building Trust Blocks

As customer views toward data privacy alter and rules to safeguard them increase, it is up to retailers to adapt. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how their data is used online and currently, the sector is failing to meet new consumer expectations, with 75% of consumers concerned about how brands use their data.

With such troubling stats, it's past time for retailers to abandon their reliance on the "surveillance economy”. Now more than ever, transparency is crucial, and rightly so, especially for businesses seeking consumer trust.

The Surveillance Economy: The Current State Of Play

Customer data has been viewed as a commodity available for sale with its collection dependent on mass surveillance. This transactional relationship has characterized consumer and brand interactions for the past decade with search engines like Google and social platforms like Facebook leading the way and retailers following suit.

For too long, brands and retailers relied on a tacit acceptance and to a certain degree of ignorance of their practice from consumers. However, both consumer attitudes and government regulation have shifted. The introduction of GDPR as well as notable cases of data misuse from big tech has drastically changed the landscape within which retailers operate. Now customers are not only far more aware and conscious of their data but are actively changing their purchasing behavior dependent on brands' data policy.

Brands have generally been slow to react, resulting in a growing crisis of consumer trust, However, more recently corporations like Apple have changed their approach to privacy and businesses are preparing themselves for a ‘Cookieless World’ as Google looks to remove third-party tracking from its browser Chrome, signaling the long-overdue move away from the Surveillance Economy,

The Benefits Of Privacy

Far too many retailers saw the introduction of GDPR as an unwanted chore. Whilst some may be confused by GDPR's intimidating features, embracing the policy's multifaceted requirements should have been seen as an important first step in regaining consumer trust.

The fact that websites continue to distort consent user interfaces, to lead consumers to make specific selections regarding their data, is exacerbating the issue of consumer trust. Rather than continue to rely on third-party cookies and make piecemeal changes due to GDPR, retailers should look to make concerted progress in rebuilding trust.

As users are worried about the privacy of their data, businesses need to have a robust policy to tackle this issue. Adhering to data protection guidelines is a start, but retailers must go further.

The current industry standard lacks the transparency required and will ultimately see consumers move away and their data with it. However, an ethical approach to consumer data shouldn’t solely be seen as a measure to prevent the loss of customers and their data, but to build and strengthen their relationship for the future.

Consumers are now far more engaged with and conscious of business ethics and want to spend their cash with businesses that align with their worldview and morals. We’ve seen this shift in consumer behavior in the retail space with customer views on sustainability and the backlash against fast fashion as one prime example but data privacy is equally pertinent, Retailers that take a stand and implement a transparent and ethical practice when it comes to their customers' data will grab the opportunity to forge more meaningful and long-lasting relationships with their consumer.

A Trustworthy Digital Future

The transition from the Surveillance to The Trust Economy will present challenges for retailers. However, the principles of retail won't change and there are still ways that retailers can connect with and understand their consumers. But only through transparency can they truly develop trustworthy relationships.

Now more than ever, retailers need to be aware that this transition is a chance to rebuild the modern customer-brand connection - a chance for change. The reliance on third-party cookies was not only an issue of ethics but also highlighted a lack of ambition from retailers and brands to forge meaningful connections with their customers. They were never perfect. Their precision was greatly exaggerated and they had reached the point of diminishing returns.

Establishing clear communication with the consumer about their data is a vital first step. However, all retailers need to evaluate every way in which they use customer data and see whether it can be anonymized and used in a way that doesn’t impinge on privacy. AI systems are now available that can provide actionable insights for retailers to improve the customer experience without jeopardizing consumers' data. Focusing on consumer behavior rather than demographic information or user id and location data gives retailers the ability to meet and understand consumers' needs and wants ethically.

These changes may appear to be technical tinkering but will have a significant impact on how retailers and brands use customer data and make significant strides in restoring consumer trust. The industry is currently gambling with that trust as they continue to treat data privacy as a chore and afterthought. It's vital that the sector embrace an ethical approach to customer data and the trust economy and take this chance to tip the scales back in the favor of consumers and rewrite the customer experience for the better.

For a smooth transition away from trackers and third-party cookies to occur, a genuine attitude shift in the retail industry needs to happen. One in which customer privacy is treated with paramount importance so that businesses and consumers are part of a two-way relationship built on transparency, trust, and value. The changes required may seem like mere technical tinkering, however, the impact made will be significant and the benefits for retailers and consumers profound.

About The Author

Angel Maldonado, CEO and Co-Founder of Empathy, has spent the last 20 years passionately developing and executing Commerce Search and Discovery solutions. Having studied Computer Information Systems at Liverpool University, Angel started his career working for Autonomy, where he helped clients on pioneering enterprise search projects for seven years before founding