Checking Out Online Shopping

Season 4: Episode 1

When you shop, your data may be the most valuable thing for sale. This isn’t just true online — your data follows you into brick and mortar stores now as well. Manoush Zomorodi explores the hidden costs of shopping, online and off. Meet Meta Brown, a data scientist who unveils the information Amazon captures about you when you make an online purchase; Joseph Turow, who discusses how retailers are stripping us of our privacy; and Alana Semuels, who talks about becoming a hoarder with the advent of online shopping. Plus, learn about a college coffee shop where you can actually buy a drink with your data. (Is it worth it?)

Published: November 26, 2018

Show Notes

Throughout this season, IRL will feature essays from students who are sharing their thoughts on how the web impacts them — for good or bad. This week’s post explores what a Facebook hack taught a teen about privacy.

IRL is also partnering with Common Sense Media for tips on how families can stay safe and strong online. This week’s post explains what families can do to safeguard their data.

Meta Brown is the author of Data Mining for Dummies.

Joseph Turow is the author of The Aisles Have Eyes.

Read Alana Semuels essay, We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things.

And, if you decide to shop online this holiday season, Firefox has you covered with Pricewise, which tracks prices for you across five top US retailers: Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Home Depot and Best Buy.


Manoush Z.: Okay, it’s Manoush. I’m in downtown Manhattan, SoHo area some really steamy fall afternoon. Lots of people around who are beautiful and look like models, or tourists who want to look like models at least for the day while they’re here. They’re mostly making it happen actually, I’m impressed.

Wait a minute, hold on. Hold on just a second here. Let me just - let me orient you dear listener. What you’re hearing there is, it’s me. I’m Manoush Zomorodi and I’m hosting season four of IRL. We’re going to do proper introductions in just a sec, but for now have a listen.

This is me trying to find a new store, a special store, in Manhattan. It’s the Amazon 4-Star store. That’s right, Amazon, behemoth of the online shopping world, they have opened this brick and mortar location. It only sells stuff that shoppers like you and me have rated on the website with four stores or higher.

All right, there it is. The Amazon 4-Star, which I think is a terrible name. Shouldn’t it absolutely be the Amazon 5-Star? Why limit yourself to, “We all got B pluses.” Anyway, let’s go in.

Here we go.

Speaker 1: Hi, how are you. We’re giving away Amazon gift cards today.

Manoush Z.: Thank you. The first thing I see are Ninja Turtles, like human sized Ninja Turtles. I have to get away from them. Sorry, excuse me.

Oh my God, it’s really crowded and really frickin’ loud in here. I’m having a sensory overload. Smart light bulb, that’s a regular light bulb. Wireless lighting, is that the same thing? Smart wifi LED light bulb. Okay, let’s buy that.

This store is my worst nightmare, it reminds me of going to the mall when I was a kid in New Jersey in the 80s. Let’s just buy this thing and get the heck out of here.

Speaker 2: Hi, do you have the Amazon app on your phone?

Manoush Z.: I’m just going to pay for it with cash, is that okay?

Speaker 2: We don’t work cash in the store.

Manoush Z.: You’re cashless?

Speaker 2: Yes, we’re cashless.

Manoush Z.: Okay, thank you so much. Okay, I’m not putting this on my credit card. This is why people shop on Amazon, so they don’t have to go into stores like this. I’m getting the heck out of here. Excuse me. Oh my God, I can’t breathe. Time to go, bye.

Okay, I’ve got my breath again. Look, Amazon 4-Star stores might be just the thing for you, they are not the thing for me. What an intense reminder that the differences between online and offline shopping are disappearing. The reason for that is data; precious, valuable customer data.

Traditionally online retailers were the masters at managing data to get us to buy things. Now, the brick and mortar stores are catching up. They want in on the data game, and that means that there’s no escaping it.

This is episode one of the new season of IRL and it launches on the busiest online shopping day of the year; Cyber Monday. All together, we’re going to spend $7 billion on online retailers on this one day alone. That’s a fraction of the $2.5 trillion we are spending this year. Thank goodness we got free shipping, right?

Now I promised you a proper introduction, so here goes. Who’s Manoush Zomorodi? You might know me from my earlier podcast, Note To Self or a book I wrote about the attention economy called Bored and Brilliant, or the work I’m doing right now with my own production company, Stable Genius. We have a podcast called ZigZag.

Basically I’m a journalist and I am fascinated by the choices that people make online. Also, the choices made by those who build the internet that we sometimes hate, but mostly love.

Just a quick note; Veronica Belmont, oh my gosh, she did an incredible job hosting this podcast for its first three seasons. I want to take a sec to thank her, thank you Veronica, and say that we will hold true to that quirky, smart IRL spirit that she established here.

This season we’re investigating the online forces that steer us one way or another. We’ll explore the ethics that drive those decisions. We’re talking about how we can hopefully, at least sometimes, take the wheel back.

So let’s start with a peek behind the curtain at the secret life of online shopping. This is season four of IRL: Online Life is Real Life, an original podcast from Mozilla.

By the way, Mozilla just released a new update to the Firefox browser. It is lightning fast and it also has enhanced tracking protection built right into it. You spend less time worrying about who’s snooping on your data, and more time doing the stuff that you love online. Download it for free at

All right. Cyber Monday, if ever there was a day for online shopping. Let’s run a little simulation here, okay? Let’s pretend that I’ve got the Amazon app open here on my phone and I am shopping for something simple, batteries. Let’s buy some batteries.

I could get those delivered at the click of a button, but this time I want to take the long route. I want to know when you break down that one little transaction, how much data does that simple click really produce? To find out, let’s bring in an expert, a data scientist.

Meta Brown: Hi, I’m Meta Brown.

Manoush Z.: Meta’s the author of Data Mining for Dummies.

Meta Brown: Most likely you’ll be logged into Amazon, so already you’re identifying yourself as a person with a particular shopping and browsing history.

Manoush Z.: Right, Amazon has a record of every single thing I have ever bought from them. They’ve gotten to know me pretty well.

Meta Brown: There’s also going to be information that Amazon has really from its experience working with millions of customers. It’s going to be constantly be presenting these different products to many people whose behavior is like yours, and seeing which ones sell the most.

Manoush Z.: Right, let’s look up batteries. I’m seeing Amazon brand batteries, Amazon Basics as they’re called. They’re at the top, surprise, surprise. Oh, and they’re on sale. But Energizer is actually number one, so maybe they think I’m an Energizer kind of person.

Meta Brown: They’re going to be doing a great deal of testing all the time. Not just, “Will our batteries sell better than a name brand of batteries when they’re on sale?”, but also the time of day, the geography, and things that it knows about the behavioral history of individual shoppers.

Manoush Z.: This individual shopper is selecting the Amazon Basics 48 pack of AA batteries, I feel like that speaks to me. I’m heading to checkout now and oh, local delivery in two hours for members of Amazon Prime, which I happen to be and which I’m sure Amazon is very happy about.

Meta Brown: The more that they can pull you in to do everything through their marketplace, then the more complete the information that they can collect about any given shopper.

Manoush Z.: Well, my purchase is done. Now I play the waiting game. You know what? I’m going to catch up on Mr. Robot. Except, oh man, wait a minute: I am watching Mr. Robot on Amazon Prime and I just bought the batteries on Amazon Prime. There’s a link now, right? Now Amazon thinks Mr. Robot fans all want to buy batteries. Is that a thing?

Meta Brown: Here’s how I would expect it to go. You watch Mr. Robot on Amazon Prime, and so do perhaps millions of other people. Then those millions of other people and you will do other things, and Amazon will be tracking what other things you do.

Will watching Mr. Robot lead to you’re being offered night vision cameras? If a lot of the other people who have been watching Mr. Robot start shopping for night vision cameras, then yes. It’s just math, it is not magic.

Manoush Z.: Right. That explains why an online shopping company is totally happy to also be making original content. They want to know our interests and how we spend our time, all the better to get us buying more stuff.

It’s like a 360 consumption experience, it’s super powered shopping fueled by non-stop data. Amazon is really, really good at this.

Meta Brown: Amazon has a big edge on other retailers competing in the same landscape. They were very data driven from the start. If you pick any random person on the street and ask whether they’ve ever visited Amazon, do they have an Amazon account, and how far back does it go; you’re going to realize that Amazon has got, let’s say 20 years of browsing history for most people who shop online. No other retailer has that.

Manoush Z.: That is interesting, because it means that to compete as a retailer, you have to play the same data game that Amazon is playing.

Meta Brown: Data is necessary, and any large retailer that has to handle a lot of products to a diverse collection of people has absolutely got to get on the data train.

Manoush Z.: Amazon’s not magic, like Meta said. It’s just a bunch of math doing its thing. For example, I’m an author, yeah, authors search for themselves online, and as a result Amazon’s always trying to sell me my own book. Same goes for Meta.

Meta Brown: And they know I wrote it, I have an author account.

Manoush Z.: It’s little glitches like that that remind you, this whole experience is just governed by algorithms. It’s one big numbers game. And different retailers have always been able to dominate the market using different numbers games. Like the Sears Department Store, for example, this was the Amazon of its day, right? For 132 years their own model rooted in mail-order catalogs was king, and then they declared bankruptcy. They took their eyes off the digital data prize and poof, no more Sears.

When online retail is that big a deal, when it’s so dominant, can we still opt out? I mean, I wasn’t even given the option to pay with cash at the Amazon Four Star store. Maybe they just hate cash, but I think it’s also about that valuable data trail, which in some ways is just as important as the money I was trying to give them.

That’s online shopping, it’s a world where our data, our money and our personal choices are all bound together.

Joseph T.: John Wanamaker said 100 years ago, “I know that 50% of my advertising works, I just don’t know which 50%.”

Manoush Z.: Right.

Joseph T.: The whole goal of the 20th century, and now in the 21st century, is to figure that out.

Manoush Z.: If you wouldn’t mind just saying your name and your title, just so we have it on tape.

Joseph T.: Joseph Turow, I’m the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

Manoush Z.: You are the author of numerous books, but what’s the latest book that you wrote?

Joseph T.: The latest one is The Aisles Have Eyes, which is about the ways in which physical brick and mortar stores are actually bringing the internet into the store to track people and figure out what they are doing, what they want.

Manoush Z.: Okay, so I have to ask, Professor. Is there any way to escape the data gathering?

Joseph T.: No, not today. One of the buzzwords of the last several years is ‘frictionless.’ Everybody’s trying to make frictionless shopping, but at the same time, companies like Amazon realize that there are things that people wanna look at and touch and feel. So brick and mortar combines with the digital.

The whole idea of offline-online doesn’t make sense anymore. They’re all so terribly intertwined with one another. It’s just kinda crazy to talk about that distinction.

Manoush Z.: Are there any brick and mortar stores that are particularly good at adopting online data strategies to get us to shop more? I’ve heard that Walmart’s pretty good at that.

Joseph T.: Yeah, Walmart was terrible at it until several years ago, and then they realized that Amazon was eating their lunch. They spent huge amounts of money. They have a base in Silicon Valley, and they are doing quite well.

The biggest problem is not use of digital media. It’s not even targeting per se. Certainly, the idea of targeting based on the context you’re in makes some sense. The problem is the huge amount of profiling that companies keep all the time. Those data become part of a profile, which then companies can use to decide how to discriminate against you.

Some people, maybe you and I, might get good results from that. Other people, bad results. Profiles that you really have no control over, that you don’t even know are going on typically, they become the currency of the world that decides how companies should treat you in one area or another.

By discounts, by messages, by even showing you certain things and not other things.

Manoush Z.: I wonder if, Professor, you could just sort of give us a very sort of tangible illustration of how it works when you do go into a store.

Joseph T.: There are companies that can track when you walk in. You walk into Target, for example, and you have Target’s app. Target will know you walked in if you have your wifi on. As you walk around the store, Target can track you because of beacons that exist around the store that actually interact with your phone.

In that sense, the store can give you different messages, can change prices about you. In the background, Target is figuring out who you are, what’s going on. It has kept a lot of information about you.

Manoush Z.: Wait, so if I’m standing in aisle nine, and I’m like, “I need diapers.” Will I get a different price than the person who’s standing next to me?

Joseph T.: You could. It’s totally plausible, yes. Because they may say given that we know this person has just had a baby two months ago, and she’s a big shopper here. We’ll give her two dollars off to buy Pampers instead of Huggies. Maybe Pampers has made a deal with the store that way.

The other person walking by, they don’t have any record of them buying diapers, or anything about their shopping, and so that person will have to pay what’s on the shelf.

Manoush Z.: Do you drink coffee?

Joseph T.: Yeah, all the time.

Manoush Z.: There’s this coffee shop near Brown University in Rhode Island. It’s called the Shiru. The coffee is free as long as you’re willing to give up your personal data. You literally consent to sharing basic data about yourself, what you’re studying, and you get the drink of your choice.

I wanna play a clip from Nina Wolff Landau. She’s a student at Brown.

Nina: So I just got out of a meeting, and now I’m going to Shiru to get some matcha. I’m just going on their website and logging in, and then I’m selecting my drink on here, matcha latte. Then it’s gonna pull up a QR code, which is what I bring to the cashier, and they scan that to get my order.

Speaker 3: Hi.

Nina: Hi, how are you?

Speaker 3: Good, how are you?

Nina: Good.

Speaker 3: The matcha?

Nina: Yes.

Speaker 3: And your first name?

Nina: It is Nina.

My name is Nina Wolff Landau. I am a junior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I don’t know a lot about matcha, but it’s pretty good, and it’s even better when you don’t have to pay for it.

I think the information we give to the cafes, pretty basic, I think a lot of this information is pretty accessible online, so I was not too concerned about giving that information away, and maybe it’s a bit cynical. But I also figure in this day and age, so much of our information is not truly protected anyway. At least now I’m getting something in exchange for information that Google probably already knows about me.

I think it also leads to people kind of checking out, and not being more critical about it because they’re like, “Oh, well, this is the world we live in. This is the way it is. There’s no alternatives.” It’s hard to kind of envision things being different.

I know there was an opinion piece in The Brown Daily Herald from a few students who thought we should be boycotting Shiru Café, but it never really turned into a big topic of conversation, the ethics behind the café. It was more that people were excited to have free beverages, and another space to work.

Thank you.

Speaker 3: Have a nice day.

Nina: You too.

Manoush Z.: Professor Turow, you spend a lot of time with college students. What goes through your mind when you hear this? I mean, what she says is kind of true.

Joseph T.: We’re teaching, the companies are teaching ourselves and our kids that this is the way you get along in the 21st century, to give away data. It’s part of a larger idea of what data means in society. Most people don’t understand data mining. The notion of artificial intelligence and the combination of different kinds of categories make no sense to most people.

You know a lot of people say, “Well, there’s sensitive data, and there’s non-sensitive or benign data. We’ll make sure about the sensitive data, like your sexual preference, but not the benign data like what you buy from a supermarket.”

Well, turns out that so-called benign data brought together can raise some really interesting generalizations about who you are that you may not be happy with. All benign data can be sensitive if massaged in certain ways.

Manoush Z.: I guess what concerns me is that I am someone who knows relatively a lot about this stuff, and when you put it that way I am incensed. But confession, I went on Zappos the other day, and I was looking for cute black sneakers to wear with like a suit because that’s fashionable right now. Then I abandoned my cart.

Yesterday I got an email from Zappos that was like, “You know you looked at those sneakers. Here’s some others ones that are cute too.” I was like, “Oh, these are cute, you’re right. Okay, maybe I’ll …”

So, I feel like-

Joseph T.: Well, that’s an Amazon company, you realize, right?

Manoush Z.: Oh, right. I forgot about that. But I guess it’s like the immediacy of the convenience is kinda awesome.

Joseph T.: Absolutely. There’s an academic, I forget her name, who called all of this ‘seductive surveillance.’ Marketers would like us to believe that what we’re doing is accepting the idea of a trade-off. I’ll give my data, you give me these materials. But when we talk to people in these interviews, nationally-representative surveys, it turns out that philosophically, most Americans really don’t believe in these kinds of trade-offs. When you give them a hypothetical about a supermarket and discounts though, they start giving away the farm, ‘cause they want the discounts.

But the larger issue is the question of how do we deal with this new world in which our presence is constantly monitored? When you’re walking through the world and you begin to get worried about, “Is anyone listening to me? Is my Alexa on now?” Okay, “Did I shut the microphone on my car off when I’m talking about something sensitive?”

Manoush Z.: And what you’re saying is, it’s a very short line between a $2 coupon and the panopticon essentially.

Joseph T.: Yeah, yeah. And the process of seductive surveillance helps to make it normal. Once it gets normal, we don’t remember that this was ever a real problem. We’re moving from personalization in the market arena to hyper-personalization with profound implications for how we see ourselves, how marketers see us, and eventually how governments will see us.

And that has implications for democracy. Do we really want that kind of spread of data about us to be wrangling around society? I mean, what are the ethics of doing these sorts of things? These are topics that we really haven’t seriously discussed. And really it’s a global issue.

Manoush Z.: What would you like to see change in the shopping landscape like right now to start tipping the balance of power in favor of us, the people who are buying the stuff?

Joseph T.: You know what a really easy way to change this would be? If a privacy policy is really what Americans think a privacy policy is … We have found over several surveys, this is pretty amazing … True or false? When a website has a privacy policy, it means the site won’t share your information with other websites without your permission?

Manoush Z.: Oh goodness, please don’t tell me people thought because they had a privacy policy …

Joseph T.: Exactly.

Manoush Z.: Oh …

Joseph T.: The majority of Americans consistently believe that the word “privacy policy” means that a company keeps your data private. One way to begin changing this is, if in fact a privacy policy tells you how they share their data and exploit your data, don’t let them call it a privacy policy. It’s deceptive. If they were called “How we use your data,” and people were alerted to that, they would at least know that here’s a company I have to be careful about.

Manoush Z.: Professor Joseph Turow is at the University of Pennsylvania. His book is called The Aisles Have Eyes. You can find a link in the show notes.

Oh, and we looked up the academic he referred to. The term “seductive surveillance” comes from Dr. Pinelopi Troullinou. She’s in the U.K.

There is also a whole raft of data-tracking tools that follow us around the web, retargeting us again and again, asking us to check out items we left in our shopping carts, tempting us with, “You might also like,” style ads. Third-party tracking tools are snooping around us all the time. It’s like life online is a permanent window shopping experience. “Look here, and here, and over here.”

I do wish, like Joe Turow was suggesting, that the bargain we’re striking was a little bit more transparent. ‘Cause I don’t know about you, but I gotta watch it. Like if I order too many things back to back and things get busy at home, I will just stuff them in the back of my closet and not return them.

Why am I telling you this? Because I know it’s not just me. For anybody who has had a couple glasses of wine, started cruising the digital aisles for sneakers, it’s just so easy, right? Like that frictionless quality that Professor Turow mentions. It’s enough to actually create new habits, change the way that we behave. The convenience of online shopping is having an immediate and dramatic impact on life out here in the real world. Alana Semuels knows what I’m talking about.

Alana S.: I’ve become a hoarder myself since the advent of online shopping.

Manoush Z.: Alana is a staff writer at the Atlantic, and she wrote about her shopping compulsion, how the internet has her kind of hooked on buying stuff.

Alana S.: Sometimes I’ll say, “I can return it,” and I don’t return it. So I definitely agree that we’re becoming a nation of hoarders. I have this big desk that has you know eight drawers, and I just throw stuff in those drawers. Like I probably have seven or eight portable chargers. I bought a second Kindle, even though I already have a Kindle. I’m kind of waiting for my old Kindle to die, so I just stuck my new Kindle in the drawer of this desk.

And then I have a closet also. I just put a lot of stuff in the bottom of the closet, like clothes and camping gear, some of the stuff which I already have you know two copies of.

Manoush Z.: Oh Alana, I think more and more of us have that closet, the closet of one-click shopping decisions.

Alana S.: You know, before you had to go get in your car, drive to the store, find parking, walk in the store, and then maybe they don’t even have what you’re looking for. Now you can get anything you want, and it can get delivered to your doorstep in a day or two for free.

Manoush Z.: I mean, it’s not even just that it’s easy, right? It’s also the thrill of the bargain. Huge deals that get pushed online, and people are buying things like, I don’t know, $1 yoga pants from China. If they don’t fit, who cares? Just grab the thing, click! Click.

Alana S.: I feel a tremendous amount of guilt.

Manoush Z.: And click.

Alana S.: I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie WALL-E, but in WALL-E it’s this world of the future that the Earth has been abandoned because humans have bought so much junk from this company called Buy N Large that they can’t live on Earth anymore.

You know, I really worry about what’s going to happen in 10 years if we keep up this habit of just buying stuff and then throwing it away.

Manoush Z.: And click. You can find Alana Semuels essay in the show notes on our website

Like any relationship, I am going to keep checking in on Amazon. Case in point, Amazon doesn’t sell customer data to third parties, which is good. But there were recent reports that employees are being bribed to share data with merchants. So I’m going to put a pin in these things.

Oh, and one more thing to consider while we’re filling up those digital carts. In the summer of 2018, Amazon bought an online pharmacy called PillPack. Prescription drugs are a $560 billion industry, so yeah, of course Amazon wants in. Selling everything to everyone is their mission, after all.

So pretty soon, you’ll be able to get your heart medication and your anxiety pills and your erectile dysfunction drugs from the internet’s biggest data-hungry online store. And maybe you’re okay with that, but is there a line? A line where privacy trumps convenience? And will we even notice if or when that line is crossed like Professor Turow said earlier…

Joseph T.: That has implications FOR democracy. Do we really want that kind of spread of data about us to be wrangling around society?

Manoush Z.: There are a few simple things you can do to manage what Amazon knows about you. You can purge your purchase and browsing history. You can make your Amazon wish lists private. Not everyone needs to know how excited you are about that oversize sweater with the wolf howling at the moon.

I guess what I want for myself is that larger awareness, an awareness that every ad, every price, every packaged deal is the exact opposite of an accident. It’s the result of countless data points all pushing towards a purchase. And what I need to keep reminding myself is that it’s just me, me alone who chooses whether to click that “Add to Cart” button.

IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, the not-for-profit that answers to internet users, not shareholders. Mozilla is the organization behind the Firefox browser. Download it for free at Find IRL on Apple Podcasts, on RadioPublic, or anywhere you find your favorites podcasts really, and at

I’m Manoush Zomorodi. Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you back here in a couple weeks.

If they don’t fit, who cares? Just grab the thing. Click and click and click. Click. That was kind of sinister.

Speaker 4: Oh, I mean, I like the tone.

Manoush Z.: I kind of do too, but it’s up to you.