7 Retail Secrets Stores Don't Want You To Know

It seems simple enough. You walk into a store, pick out something you like, pay for it, and then leave. But behind this simple exchange, there's a whole fleet of minds trying to figure out why you picked what you did, why you didn't pick something else, how to get you to pick more and spend more, and whether you're actually here for more nefarious reasons. And you can bet that these minds have some interesting techniques to figure it out.

Although most of these tactics are innocuous enough at face value, it's good to be informed of what personal privacies you're giving up when you choose to shop, and whether or not your shopping decisions are based on true facts. And since buying clothes is something that we're guessing most human beings do, these surveillance and merchandising methods affect us all.

We (obviously) aren't here to tell you to not shop — that's silly, and robs us of something that inspires a lion's share of our happy-making moments. But it's good to be informed and thoughtful about the process of shopping, just like you're aware of the ethics behind how your clothes are made and where certain trends are borrowed from. The more you know...

Opener image by Anna Sudit.
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If you’ve a prolific shopper and buy from both typical retailers and outlet stores as well as big-box department discount stores, you might notice it’s not just that the prices are different: The look and feel of the clothes are, too. That’s because much of the merchandise that outlets stock are actually created specifically for them. According to one employee of a national designer brand that also has outlets, “While some of the shapes and patterns are the same, we use older fabrics and skimp on details in order to create a cheaper product.” The FTC reports that diffusion discount stores like Nordstrom Rack will stock only a small percentage of actual clearance product from Nordstrom; the rest comes from merchandise specifically bought to sell at outlets. That discount you’re getting isn’t really a discount, and stores have actually gotten in trouble for falsely advertising that its retail price is actually slashed down from a fictional inflated price.
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There's not a lot of reasons to suspect that giving anyone just your zip code will lead to junk mail (or something even more annoying than that). However, according to Forbes, if you're shopping with a credit card, stores will easily be able to cross-match your zip code with an existing consumer database and learn your address, phone number, and your shopping history. That’s why you might suddenly start receiving catalogs you never signed up for.

Of course, this is all dependent on whether the store actually uses that info. It costs money to access that information, and many stores collect zip codes just to keep track of where their customer base is coming from. But especially for mass retailers, a zip code is part of a bigger plan to learn as much about their consumers as possible.
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There are certain manufacturing regions in the world that have great reputations for producing high-quality products: Italy, the United States, Japan, and Germany all are stamps of approval when you’re buying something. But sometimes, brands are generous with what they consider as “made in.” If a handbag is entirely produced in another country and finished up in Italy, it might have the label. According to Italian label Gelni, sometimes brands are owned by Italian firms but have products that are 100% made outside the country, but those origin tags still get used.

It’s important to note, though, that just because a label bears a “Made in China” moniker, it's not necessarily going to be of a lower quality. Oftentimes, Chinese factories have a much higher standard of production and technology at a lower price point. There is rampant disregard for human-rights and environmental regulations, but there are many factories that adhere to ethical standards. Just like there are many factories in the United States that flout the rules, there are many places in China that don’t. An origin tag or sticker is not a guarantee for high quality or sound ethics.
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Trying to sift through a clearance section that isn’t ordered by size or type, and with racks set at heights that are incredibly uncomfortable to access? There’s a reason: Retailers want to deter you from shopping there when there is full-priced merchandise just a few feet away. According to the now-defunct sales shopping app Hukkster, most merchandise at mass retailers will go on sale at some point. It’s in the stores’ best interest to make that option as undesirable as possible.
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Zara was recently in the headlines when The Center for Popular Democracy polled its employees and discovered that there were “code words” that existed to surreptitiously identify shoplifters (what got the retailer in trouble, though, was that customers’ ethnicity was one of the main factors in determining who might be at a higher risk for shoplifting). In the comments to our story on the practice, some of you shared similar experiences that occurred at other retailers. This thread on Reddit identifies many of the code words for shoplifters. This sort of culture exists primarily because...
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...it's really easy to shoplift. Or, rather, it's really hard for stores to stop someone from shoplifting. To avoid lawsuits, store employees literally have to catch you in the act of stealing for them to have a case against you; in a flagrant display of exploiting this blind spot, there are entire online communities dedicated to talking about the best ways to steal, while bragging about their conquests. In the U.S., shoplifting accounts for a $35 million annual loss.
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That shining orb of a security camera above your head isn't just recording blurry black-and-white shots for the record, just in case a crime is committed. These cameras are super-sophisticated to the point that they can discern unique faces. They're used to monitor foot traffic, consumer-salesperson interactions, and allegedly can recognize you as an individual consumer, and see how you're shopping, what you're buying, and can modify prices and service accordingly. Time.com investigated analytics firms and reported that even though this technology exists and is acknowledged by the FTC, companies deny that they're being used for this purpose. Retailers claim that they're using face-recognition technology only to identify their consumers on the aggregate, and to see what percentage of their shoppers are women, or of what age.
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