WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a big question for marketers: What kind of a buyer are you? And, as important, what are you willing to pay?
In the search for answers this shopping season, consumer behavior online and off is being tracked aggressively with help from advances in technology.
And it can happen whether buyers are on their work computers, mobile devices or just standing in the grocery aisle. The data can be connected with other personal information like income, ZIP code and when a person's car insurance expires.
Retailers say these techniques help customize shopping experiences and can lead to good deals for shoppers. Consumer advocates say aggressive tracking and profiling also opens the door to price discrimination, with companies charging someone more online or denying them entirely based on their home price or how often they visit a site.
"You can't have Christmas any more without big data and marketers," said Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy. "You know that song where Santa knows when you've been sleeping? He knows when you're awake? Believe me, that's where he's getting his information from."
Consumer tracking has long been a part of American consumerism. Retailers push shoppers to sign up for loyalty cards, register purchased items for warranty programs and note ZIP codes to feed their mailing lists. Online stores and advertising services employ browser "cookies," the tiny bits of software code that can track a person's movements across the Internet, to analyze shoppers and present them with relevant pop-up ads.
More recently, marketers have developed increasingly sophisticated ways to combine offline and online data that creates detailed profiles of shoppers. They also are perfecting location-tracking technology as a means of attracting new customers and influencing shoppers as they wander through brick-and-mortar stores.