Serial returners, beware: Retailers are tracking you
Jennifer C. KerrThe Associated Press
It's not just the government that might be keeping tabs on you. Many retailers are tracking you, too — or at least your merchandise returns.
The companies say it's all in the name of security and fighting fraud. They want to be able to identify chronic returners or gangs of thieves trying to make off with high-end products that are returned later for store credit.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Mari Torres, 39, didn't know returns were tracked. "I honestly think it’s an invasion of privacy,” she says.
Consumer advocates are raising transparency issues about the practice of having companies collect information on consumers and create "return profiles" of customers at big-name stores such as Best Buy, J.C. Penney, Victoria's Secret, Home Depot and Nike.
The practice led to a privacy lawsuit against Best Buy that eventually was tossed out.
Each year, consumers return about $264 billion worth of merchandise, or almost 9 percent of total sales, according to industry estimates.
Many buyers aren't aware that some returns, with and without receipts, are being monitored at stores that outsource that information to a third-party company, which creates a "return profile" that catalogs and analyzes the customer's returns at the store.
"I had absolutely no idea they were doing that," said Mari Torres of Springfield, Va., during a shopping trip with her daughter at the Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Va. "I honestly think it's an invasion of privacy."
Torres, 39, says she's a responsible shopper and she'd like to know what kind of information retailers keep on her, with whom they may be sharing it, and how long they keep it.
One company that offers return tracking services, The Retail Equation in Irvine, Calif., says it doesn't share information in the profiles it creates with outside parties or with other stores.
For example, if TRE logs and analyzes returns from a Victoria's Secret customer, The Retail Equation only reports back to Victoria's Secret about the return activity. It does not then also share that information with J.C. Penney or other retailers that use TRE.
Even so, consumer advocates don't like it.
"There should be no secret databases. That's a basic rule of privacy practices," says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "Consumers should know that information is being collected about them."
The retail industry says it's not about monitoring the majority of its shoppers, but fighting theft.
Lisa LaBruno, senior vice president of retail operations at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, says organized retail crime is costing retailers tens of billions of dollars each year.
LaBruno says the problem goes beyond the small-time shoplifter and involves organized groups of criminals who make a living from the large-scale theft of merchandise. For example, they might switch the UPC code on a $600 faucet with a lower-cost code that rings up at $50. They buy the faucet, then replace the fake UPC tag with the original, higher-priced code, and return the faucet to the store without the receipt for a $600 store credit, which can later be sold online.