The limits of 'you are what you buy'

Show up at the same small cafe every Friday night and order the crème brûlée, and before long the proprietor is likely to start having the custard dish spooned out for you in advance.

Having your consumer habits known can earn you a heightened level of service. You're tapping into a kind of old-world pact between buyer and seller that consumers may long for in a transitory age.

So we should embrace the fast familiarity that high-tech can bring to the marketplace, right?

Well, if observing the way we make our buying decisions can make shopping more efficient, then most of us may say "bring it on."

But by picking through the trails of our electronic transactions – or, more ominously, just watching us browse – marketers may now think they can formulate a kind of buyer's biography for each of us.

The promise: evolved marketing that's far better targeted than most of the presumptuous pitches we now face down daily.

The cost: privacy, as Laurent Belsie explains in today's lead story.

At a moment in history when many are calling for caution where "profiling" is concerned, should we have to pause before a purchase to consider its implications?

Consumers are often warned about guarding the numbers that can lead to the one-step rip-off of their earthly identities. Zealous marketers, some privacy advocates warn, might just take them one small piece at a time.

• • •

Ever wish you could do more about a complaint than just corner a floor manager – say, file a detailed report to corporate headquarters?

"Mystery shoppers," consumers like you, are paid to drop into retail environments to audit performance at a company's behest. See page 20.

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