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Style Christmas shopping is harder than it’s ever been, but not for the reason you think

It might make shopping easier when a website autoloads the items you browsed the last time you visited, but it makes gift spoilers more complex to anticipate.

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At one point, all it took to keep gifts a secret until the holidays was a stern admonishment to stay out of a certain closet. Where to stash the gifts once we’ve got them was the biggest problem; today, the challenge of stealth begins even before we start browsing. It’s Alexa, not Santa, who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake.

For those who value the element of surprise, the wily use of AI online marketing analytics has endangered the gifts under the tree. Last year, mobile shopping accounted for 34 per cent of holiday sales in Canada; eMarketer’s 2018 forecast expects mobile to account for 30 per cent of Canadian retail ecommerce. Now that we’re doing most of our buying through electronic channels, online retailers are getting more sophisticated with intuitive tracking technology.

It might make shopping easier when a website autoloads the items you browsed the last time you visited, but it makes gift spoilers more complex to anticipate. Tracking technology collects data points as we browse, either with cookies or with device fingerprinting that then retargets you (or who it thinks is you) via desktop or mobile. So, you might have comparison shopped for a surprise gift for your partner, only for your partner to use the same device later to look up the weather and be served a pop-up ad with the very gift they’ve been coveting. Surprise, meet ruin.

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It’s no longer as simple as enabling private browsing. In November, Ghostery, a privacy browser company, analyzed the tracking techniques used by 10 major retailer websites of companies including Best Buy, Wayfair and H&M and claims is 11.4 per page load (with advertising trackers accounting for 49 per cent of all those found). Eventually they or similar advertisers chime in with promotions – often doggedly. Households with shared merchant account profiles, which is often the case, create a shared shopping trail.

It used to be putting something in a cart and navigating away was the end of a browse, as was blocking cookies. But lately it feels as if it takes NCIS-like forensic skills to avoid spoilers. I tried blocking cookies on Hudson’s Bay and later the same day, an e-mail with the subject “Did you see something you liked?” arrived, complete with the image of a blouse I’d hovered on for details pasted into the e-mail and the suggestion that I take another look. Similarly, some hours after browsing the Sleep Shirt and putting items in a cart during a coffee break, a missive arrived with a link inviting me back to complete the purchase. The pressure tactics designed to badger us into submission aren’t unlike that of a persistent six year old, and are often as effective.

Online isn’t just for the digital native millennial demographic – PwC Canada’s research in their 2018 holiday outlook report suggests that most Canadian consumers go online for inspiration (even if they end up purchasing in-store), with a whopping 40 per cent over all relying on Amazon in general and 45 per cent checking prices and deals through the behemoth online retailer.

The data of Black Friday Cyber Monday (or BFCM as retailers now call the four-day business opportunity) tells a story. Canadian e-commerce platform Shopify’s recent merchant data aggregation of 2018 BFCM conversion rates by referral source, (the percentage of visitors to a website that complete a desired goal, i.e. sale) for example, reveals about 4.38 per cent of conversions are achieved through e-mail, with about 2 per cent through social channels. That may seem negligible in the grand scheme of things, but if e-mail is a revenue driver then whoever in the household created the retail account profile (and pays the bill) is also the likely recipient of a gift spoiler. Netflix offers sub-profiles for different viewers on the same account, but few retailers do, although Indigo recently added that option to its existing online gift registry in the form of a wish list creation feature.

Shopify’s business-building toolbox includes new features such as direct shopping on Instagram, one of the most popular social media platforms. But its merchants also get to use Kit. The virtual employee is not to be confused with Knight Rider’s artificially intelligent computer car Kitt, though in spirit they’re practically cousins: Kit is the new exclusive “virtual employee” available to Shopify merchants and it does everything from winning back customers who abandon a purchase during the checkout process to tracking and engaging with almost-customers, even nudging them with a cheery follow-up email. Kit can also retarget web visitors using personalized Facebook dynamic product ads based on the products or articles they were reading to attract customers. (Even algorithms, it seems, follow Alec Baldwin’s advice in Glengarry Glen Ross: “Always be closing.”)

Since few households share smartphones let alone Facebook or Instagram accounts, targeted ads based on mobile browsing are less of a danger. But companies are improving their mobile and app experiences to gain brand loyalty on those platforms. That can even translate to a ping from a retailer branch whose mobile site personalizes based on location (for example, a ping when in proximity, to a brick-and-mortar location where a previously browsed product is in stock). If couples and households share retail accounts, as most do with the main retailers, that’s another indiscreet danger.

Short of getting a degree in advance computational forensics, your best chance of sidestepping inadvertent reveal is the old-fashioned way, by setting foot in an actual store and then smuggling the package into the house under a winter coat.

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