The Sneaky Ways Retailers Are Getting Your Email Address

Email address

If you're planning to do any shopping this Memorial Day weekend, it's a safe bet that you'll be asked for your email address when you get to the register. Capturing customer emails at checkout is one of the ways retailers sign people up for marketing emails. You don't have to give it, of course, but stores have gotten so adept at slipping in the request that many of us don't hesitate.

The same is true when you buy something from an online retailer for the first time. You invariably have to hand over your email address. And unless you explicitly opt out, that means you're signed up for marketing emails.

But it's no longer enough for retailers to wait until consumers have already made a purchase before targeting them for emails. They also want to grab the people who stop by to visit the website but don't buy anything. And they're even trying to sign up consumers who paused to look at an advertisement.

Here are the sneaky ways retailers are getting your email address.

Sign-up on arrival. Can you imagine if you had to sign a guestbook before walking into a store? Well, that's exactly what many online retailers do: The moment you arrive at a site, you're hit with an email sign-up form. In some cases, this is a simple pop-up that you can dismiss and get on with your shopping. But some sites, like Groupon, are so determined to get in your inbox that they won't let you in unless you sign up for emails. Usually there's a way to navigate around this so that you can see the actual site without signing up, but they don't make it easy.

Sign-up on Twitter. Twitter has been slow to monetize its service, but as rumors of an IPO swirl, it's gotten more comfortable with finding ways to generate revenue. Case in point: Last week it introduced "lead generation cards," which allow brands to sign up users directly through a tweet. When a user expands a promoted tweet from a brand, he or she will be given the option of getting an exclusive offer, and signing up for promotional emails in the process. And since you used your email address to create your Twitter account, you don't need to write it out -- just click a button and Twitter will send it over to the company on your behalf.

So far, Priceline and Full Sail University are among the few brands using the new feature, but expect retailers to get on board as they realize the potential of one-click email sign-ups.

Sign-up on Google. Twitter isn't the only tech company letting businesses sign customers up for emails with a single click.

Google has long offered sponsored results -- those shaded search results that appear at the top of the page when you run certain searches. But in the last year and a half those advertisements have been taken to the next level by incorporating an email sign-up directly into the advertisement. Search for Lowe's, for instance, and the Lowe's ad that appears at the top will now have a field for entering your email address. And if you're logged into Google when you do your search, your Gmail address will be auto-filled; all you have to do is hit the button.

As with Twitter, it's all about lowering barriers to entry -- companies want to grab those customers who might be willing to sign up for emails but aren't committed enough to actually type out their address. And if they also grab a few people who hit the button by accident or without knowing what they're agreeing to, the stores are probably okay with that.

Controlling the Spam

In most of these scenarios, you can avoid signing up for marketing emails just by knowing your rights and being careful where you click. But in cases where handing over an email address is necessary -- either because the site won't let you in otherwise, or because you want to get that promotional offer from Twitter, or simply because you want to make a purchase -- you don't need to resign yourself to being spammed.

One strategy is to create a separate email address specifically for email sign-ups, so that messages from family and friends don't get lost amid an avalanche of coupon codes and sale announcements. You can check it when you feel like shopping; otherwise it's out of sight and out mind, and you don't need to worry about being enticed by offers to buy stuff you don't need.

And remember: If you sign up for a company's emails and don't like what they have to say, the "unsubscribe" button is right there at the bottom.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.