Get in Google, we’re going shopping

Get in Google, we’re going shopping

You contemplated buying that new pair of shoes and now they are following you around the internet. This article explores how personal data is collected while we shop, in-store and online.
​Sarah Villeneuve
Policy Analyst
Stephanie Fielding
Policy & Research Analyst
December 2, 2019
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Have you ever wondered why you keep seeing advertisements for products you’ve looked up online? The practice of targeting advertisements based on browsing habits, past purchases, and consumer behaviours is now commonplace. Many companies collect this data to inform targeted advertisement strategies, which seek to provide current or prospective customers with more personalized product and service recommendations.[1] While anti-spam laws in Canada have made direct messaging and emails illegal without opt-in consent, targeted advertisements are not covered under these restrictions. Increasing public awareness about consumer tracking behaviours by major platforms such as Amazon and Google[2] have made digital data practices associated with online shopping one of the most publically well-known digital marketing activities.

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"According to Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), 87 percent of Canadians made an online purchase in 2018."

Online shopping

Shopping has become one of the most popular online activities, due to the increased ease in delivery as well as the convenience and variety compared to in-store shopping. According to Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), 87 percent of Canadians made an online purchase in 2018.[3] 

Companies are able to make the online shopping experience extremely personalized for their customers by collecting data about individuals’ characteristics and consumer behaviours.

Cookies[4] are commonly used by online goods and service providers to track activities on their websites, such as which items a customer has viewed, what they have added to their shopping basket, search terms, and any personally-identifiable information that is entered via log-in, registration, or check-out. There are three common types of cookies: session cookies, persistent cookies, and malicious cookies. Session cookies collect information about a customer until they exit the site.[5] When the same customer visits the website again, they will be treated as a new customer. Persistent cookies remain in an individual’s browser until they are manually deleted, and are therefore able to collect and save information about a customer between multiple visits.[6] Persistent cookies allow companies to build a profile of a customer’s preferences. Malicious cookies track an individual’s activity and browsing habits over time in order to build a profile of personal interests that can be sold to advertisers who seek to target individuals with specific ads.[7] Like persistent cookies, malicious cookies must be manually deleted.

There are a variety of other methods companies can use to collect data about customers. A growing number of companies use subscription services to further tailor customer experience. Most subscriptions typically require customers to provide information such as location, gender, age, and banking information, allowing companies to collect personally-identifying information alongside consumer behaviours such as purchase and browsing history. Customer surveys are used by many companies to gain additional insight about their customers. Surveys are used to collect data about customer demographics, satisfaction, and product or service usage.[8]

"A number of people have said they have received advertisements for products they had only just talked about, without searching for them online prior to their conversation."

Amazon is a prime example of a company that uses subscription services to collect large amounts of data about their customers. According to Amazon’s privacy policy, this not only includes names, email addresses, addresses, payment methods, and telephone numbers of customers, but also people to whom purchases have been shipped.[9] Additionally, Amazon collects any other information customers provide via product ratings, discussion board interactions, and account settings. Amazon also automatically collects data about a customer’s browsing history, interaction with advertisements, and search queries. When a customer accesses Amazon via a mobile device, location data is also collected to provide location-based products and services.[10] By aggregating data collected from an individual’s characteristics, behaviours and preferences, Amazon can provide product recommendations based on other users’ purchase history, or the “Frequently Bought Together” function.[11]

In some instances, companies gain insight into intimate details of people’s lives. Target, for example, tracks detailed customer online browsing and purchasing history. Their in-house statistics team identified 25 products — including unscented moisturizer and magnesium supplements — that, when analyzed together, could provide a pregnancy prediction score for each shopper. Using this information, Target sends out fliers tailored to expectant mothers for items such as baby clothes and cribs. In one instance, a father was informed that his daughter was pregnant as a result receiving pregnancy-related fliers from Target to their home address.[12] Retail stores are not the only organizations that provide customers with targeted advertisements. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram offer companies the ability to target specific groups of people, categorized, for example, by age, location, and political views.[13] 

There are an increasing number of public discussions around other forms of data collection used to inform advertisements, such as smartphones listening into conversations. While these practices have not been confirmed by any company, the coincidence of receiving an advertisement about something you spoke about may be troubling or uncanny. A number of people have said they have received advertisements for products they had only just talked about, without searching for them online prior to their conversation.[14] To test this, a journalist from Vice spoke out loud about going back to university, and reportedly received advertisements on Facebook about mid-semester courses from a number of universities.[15]

"According to the Loblaw Companies Limited Privacy Policy, personal transactional information may be shared within the group of companies, or third parties that provide products or services."

In-store shopping

Companies do not need to have a large online presence in order to collect, and benefit from, customer data. In fact, physical stores can collect data from customers in a number of ways. The most common, and perhaps the most well-known, is through loyalty programs (also referred to as reward programs). Retail stores and services use loyalty programs as a strategy to attract new customers, retain existing ones, and increase customer spending by offering deals on products, or giving customers points for each purchase they make and the ability to apply these points towards future purchases. While offering perks to customers, these loyalty programs gather plenty of data on customers. This includes personally-identifiable information such as a customer’s name, address, email address, phone number, and date of birth. Some stores provide customers with a membership card[16] or require them to download an app.[17] Once an individual is registered, the company can then track information related to the locations the customer shops at, and what they are purchasing. In some cases, companies share this data with third parties or retailers that are part of the same brand.[18] 

For example, the PC Optimum program, a popular rewards program owned by Loblaw Companies Limited, offers personalized customer rewards to match the food and products they frequently purchase.[19] Customers can earn points for shopping at stores such as Loblaws, Metro, Shoppers Drug Mart, and Pharmaprix, as well as Esso, Go Train, and Mobil stations across Canada. Customers can redeem points for cash value that can be put towards products at participating locations. According to the Loblaw Companies Limited Privacy Policy, personal transactional information may be shared within the group of companies, or third parties that provide products or services.[20]

Physical stores can also use “wifi marketing” by providing customers with in-store wifi and then using it to advertise promotions or establish a communication channel with customers.[21] In many cases, consumers will have to provide their name, email address, or social media account information (e.g., logging in using Facebook) in order to connect. By collecting this contact information, companies can send advertisements either through email or on social media after the customer has left the store.

"Third-party location marketing companies provide monetary incentives or other benefits, such as detailed user reports, to app developers who bundle Bluetooth beacon tracking into their product."

In-store advertisements related to customer location and behaviours are also becoming more prevalent through the use of Bluetooth beacons. Bluetooth beacons are tiny, inconspicuous digital devices hidden throughout stores that send signals to apps on customers’ mobile devices.[22] Customers don’t necessarily need to have downloaded the store’s app. Third-party location marketing companies provide monetary incentives or other benefits, such as detailed user reports, to app developers who bundle Bluetooth beacon tracking into their product.[23] These signals are used to understand a customer’s location in the store, as well as how long they stay there. In doing so, the company can send targeted advertisements and personalized promotions to customers while they are shopping.[24] For example, Bluetooth beacons in grocery stores can determine whether a customer paused in the yogurt section, suggesting they picked up a product, and send them a coupon for yogurt to use at the checkout.[25] Bluetooth beacons are increasingly deployed in other contexts, such as airportssubways, buses, malls, sporting arenas, gyms, hotels, hospitals, and even music festivals.[26] These data collection practices provide significantly more granularity than previous methods, such as GPS tracking and cell-tower data, which could only offer stores approximate location data.

This is part of a series of articles exploring personal data collection practices in Canada. Check out our previous article on Education + Employment, and stay tuned for our next article on Personal Finance.

Technology and policy related to this topic are constantly evolving. If you think we have missed something or see an error please contact Sarah Villeneuve (sarah.villeneuve@ryerson.ca). If you want to get involved in subsequent phases of this project, apply here.


[1] Canadian Civil Liberties Association. 2016. “Consumer Tracking and Surveillance: Who Is Watching You?” Canadian Civil Liberties Association. https://ccla.org/consumer-tracking-surveillance-watching/.

[2] While “Google & Facebook say they don’t sell user information, but rather keep it for themselves to personalize their services, [they] sell targeted ads across the internet and track whether the ads lead to sales at brick-and-mortar stores. Google, which also receives precise location information from apps that use its ad services, reported modifying customer data to make it less exact.” Valentino-DeVries, Jennifer, Natasha Singer, Michael Keller, and Aaron Krolik. 2018. “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret.” The New York Times, December 10, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/10/business/location-data-privacy-apps.html.

[3] CIRA. 2019. “2019 Canada’s Internet Factbook.” Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA). 2019. https://cira.ca/resources/corporate/factbook/canadas-internet-factbook-2019

[4] SlightlyInteresting.com. 2012. “What Are Cookies: Computer Cookies Explained.” What Are Cookies. 2019 2012. http://www.whatarecookies.com/.

[5] Big Commerce Essentials. 2003. “What Is a Cookie and Why Is It Important? | BigCommerce.” Big Commerce Essentials. 2019 2003. https://www.bigcommerce.ca/ecommerce-answers/what-cookie-and-why-it-important/.

[6] Big Commerce Essentials. 2003. “What Is a Cookie and Why Is It Important? | BigCommerce.” Big Commerce Essentials. 2019 2003. https://www.bigcommerce.ca/ecommerce-answers/what-cookie-and-why-it-important/.

[7] Beal, Vangie. 2008. “What Are Internet Cookies and What Do They Do?” Webopedia. September 4, 2008. https://www.webopedia.com/DidYouKnow/Internet/all_about_cookies.asp.

[8] Sharma, Ruchika. 2019. “16 Excellent Customer Satisfaction Survey Examples.” HubSpot. 2019. https://blog.hubspot.com/service/customer-satisfaction-survey-examples.

[11] Feedvisor. “Understanding Amazon’s ‘Frequently Bought Together’ Feature,” November 2, 2018. https://feedvisor.com/resources/amazon-marketing-advertising-strategies/understanding-amazons-frequently-bought-together-feature/.

[12] Hill, Kashmir. 2012. “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.” Forbes, February 16, 2012. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/.

[13] Einstein, Mara. 2016. Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing and the Covert World of the Digital Sell. New York, UNITED STATES: OR Books. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/utoronto/detail.action?docID=4673446.

[14] BBC News. 2017. “Is Your Phone Listening in? Your Stories.” BBC News, October 30, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-41802282.

[15] Nichols, Sam. 2018. “Your Phone Is Listening and It’s Not Paranoia.” Motherboard by Vice, June 4, 2018. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/wjbzzy/your-phone-is-listening-and-its-not-paranoia.

[16] For example, Costco’s membership card (https://www.costco.ca/join-costco-quick.html)

[17] For example, UNIQLO. 2019. “UNIQLO APP – UNIQLO.” UNIQLO. 2019. http://www.uniqlo.com/my/mobile_app/index.html.

[18] “How Do Companies Use My Loyalty Card Data? – BBC News.” Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-43483426.

[19] “PC Optimum.” Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.pcoptimum.ca/.

[20] “Loblaw Companies Limited – Loblaw Privacy Policy.” Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.loblaw.ca/en/privacy.html#section2.

[21] “WiFi Marketing: What It Is and How Retailers Can Use It — Retail Tips & Trends.” Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.shopify.ca/retail/wifi-marketing-what-it-is-and-how-retailers-can-use-it.

[22] Kwet, Michael. 2019. “In Stores, Secret Bluetooth Surveillance Tracks Your Every Move.” The New York Times, June 14, 2019, The Privacy Project. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/14/opinion/bluetooth-wireless-tracking-privacy.html,

[23] Kwet, Michael. 2019. “In Stores, Secret Bluetooth Surveillance Tracks Your Every Move.” The New York Times, June 14, 2019, The Privacy Project. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/14/opinion/bluetooth-wireless-tracking-privacy.html,

[24] QuickBooks Canada Team. 2017. “Use Beacon Technology to Build Sales for Your Retail Business.” QuickBooks Canada. December 18, 2017. https://quickbooks.intuit.com/ca/resources/managing-people/beacon-technology-definition-use/.

[25] Kwet, Michael. 2019. “In Stores, Secret Bluetooth Surveillance Tracks Your Every Move.” The New York Times, June 14, 2019, The Privacy Project. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/14/opinion/bluetooth-wireless-tracking-privacy.html,

[26] Kwet, Michael. 2019. “In Stores, Secret Bluetooth Surveillance Tracks Your Every Move.” The New York Times, June 14, 2019, The Privacy Project. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/14/opinion/bluetooth-wireless-tracking-privacy.html,

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

​Sarah Villeneuve
Policy Analyst
Stephanie Fielding
Policy & Research Analyst
December 2, 2019
Print Page

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