They Know What You Want. So What?

Steve Finlay 2

March 22, 2013

3 Min Read
They Know What You Want. So What?

For years now, e-retailers have tracked customer online behavior and used it for personalized marketing. sends me unsolicited book and music recommendations based on its tracking of my website browsing.

But when the auto industry gets involved in that sort of thing, a lot of people bristle at the nerve of it all.

A Wall Street Journal story carried a headline, “They Know What You’re Shopping For.” That sounds ominous, like the old horror movie, “I Saw What You Did.”

The article starts out describing how a car shopper filled out and submitted an online form on a BMW dealership’s website.

What happened next in this chilling tale? Did the dealership stalk the innocent man who apparently was dumb enough to identify himself as someone in the market for a new car? Did he get 2 a.m. calls from fiendish salesmen?

No. His submitted information went to a big-data firm. It uses computer IP addresses to track online car shopping. When the guy identified himself on the submitted form, the firm matched his name to his IP address, then told the dealership what kind of cars he seemed interested in based on websites he’d visited.

When the newspaper informed him about that, he was miffed: “The less they know, the better.” But it’s really the other way around, as long as everyone plays it straight.

That data-collecting and analyzing is intended to learn what consumers are shopping for, and then give them relevant marketing information. That way, if they show an interest in pickup trucks, you aren’t telling them about subcompacts in stock.

So what’s wrong with that? How is that a breach of privacy, security or ethics? Sure, evil people do bad things online. Identity thieves and mean-spirited hackers come to mind. Auto makers and dealers don’t.

The auto industry is sensitive to privacy concerns, says Joe Pistell, senior director-product innovation for, a company that provides website services to auto retailers.

“There is a delicate balance,” he says. “Most car shoppers say, ‘If I opt in, I’m OK with you using my information, as long as you don’t cross the line.’ The problem is that the industry still is trying to figure out where the line is.”

But why is the line so broad for e-tailers such as Amazon? Nobody seems to mind if they track shopping behavior. “Maybe it’s because they give free shipping,” Pistell quips. Hey, dealers give away free floor mats.

Former auto dealer Michael Baker now is part of PathGeo, a start-up company associated with San Diego State University, where faculty and students developed analytics that monitor social-media activity such as Twitter messages.

The system they developed is on the lookout for auto-retail-related content. Keywords include “test drive,” “shopping for a car” and “need new brakes.” The system determines a sender’s location, allowing a nearby dealership to send a conversational marketing message.

“If someone tweets, ‘I’m thinking of test-driving a Ford Focus,’ the local dealership can send a tweet related to that,” Baker says of the system that still is in the testing stage.

“We capture social-media content that is public, not private,” he says. “People aren’t offended. They are not thinking, ‘How did you get that information?’ It is spot-on target marketing. People aren’t getting stuff they don’t want or need.”

Companies that track customer website visits say it’s nothing personal. “We’re not following you around,” says Howard Polirer,’s director-industry relations. “We’re trying to give you valuable information.”

Unless consumers volunteer personal data, system trackers don’t know their identities. But the trackers use cookies and tags assigned to computers to record shopper interests. That information goes into a data base and through algorithms.

A touchy Internet user can easily stop it, notes CEO Chip Perry.

“Privacy-sensitive people can turn off their cookies,” he says. “But only 3% to 4% do. If privacy were a big concern, more people would. The fact is, people like having relevant things recommended to them.”

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