Coupons tell retailers what you've been searching for. Do you care?

couponsCash-strapped consumers are increasingly turning to coupons to help them afford everyday items -- and retailers are meeting that demand by issuing more of them and making them easier to access through the web or on a cell phone.

But the coupons that some retailers are issuing these days aren't your average Sunday morning newspaper variety. Using a special barcode technology, these coupons can gather a shocking amount of intelligence on you -- from where you shop to how you browse the web.

The New York Times reports that these digital coupons can tell retailers:
  • The search terms you used to find the coupon
  • Your Facebook page information
  • The website you printed the coupon from
  • And other information that can be used to identify you
When it comes to finding information on Facebook, retailers can connect your FaceBook ID to a printable coupon's barcode that will allow the retailer to learn quite a bit about you. For example, if you join a FaceBook group in order to get a coupon your unique Facebook ID can be embedded into that coupon and later used by the retailer to, "easily see your sex, your location and what you're interested in," Jonathan Treiber, co founder of coupon analytics firm RevTrax, told the New York Times.

Luke Knowles, the founder of CouponSherpa, a website that provides Web, printable and mobile coupons, says the practices are "fairly common" and "nothing very new." Knowles explains that similar tracking has long occurred online with cookies, a small file placed on a computer when you visit a website, that is used to deliver relevant ads to web surfers. This type of tracking is a compromise that consumers make with retailers in exchange for savings, he explains.

The only difference is that consumers can turn off cookies; they can't stop the coupon from tracking them.

While to some consumers, this may seem like a violation of privacy the technology can also be used in their favor. This type of tracking provides companies with the ability to see which marketing messages are working and which coupon codes consumers prefer. They then use that information to deliver more relevant coupons to the consumer, thus helping them to save more.

Kelly Whalen, who blogs about personal finance at TheCentsibleLife, says she welcomes this type of coupon tracking. "I'm always irritated at Target b/c I never get relevant coupons," she tweeted. Callan Green of San Diego also tweeted her support, "If you are serving me a coupon to something I'm interested in, what's the problem? I like saving money!" Interestingly enough WalletPop didn't receive any negative responses to our request for reactions.

"I've known that retailers can gain info, etc. when I use a coupon. Some coupons I've used have actually stated right on the coupon that by using it, I am allowing that retailer to send me future communication via mail and e-mail about their products, etc.," Jill Alderman Bisignano, an avid coupon user, wrote in an email. She says she accepts the trade-off between savings and tracking and is careful about which companies she provides information to and where she gets coupons.

Pointing out the recent grocery haul of close to $70 worth of food for $7 (shown below), Jill added, "I also have to realize with all of these things that I am GAINING something by using a coupon so why shouldn't I expect the company to want to GAIN something, as well? Gaining junk mail doesn't bother me ... now, if they show up on my doorstep or something maybe I'll start to think twice."
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