The Sephora Syndrome

by Sarah Firisen

First off, let me just get this out of the way: we share too much data about ourselves knowingly with companies and they collect, use and share even more than most of us are aware of (read through those lengthy privacy notices recently?). And unless you live in Europe with its pretty extensive GDPR rules, or California with its new data privacy laws, odds are, the government isn’t going to do much to regulate that anytime soon. And we all sort of know this, and tell ourselves that it’s the price we have to pay, “The rise of surveillance capitalism over the last two decades went largely unchallenged. ‘Digital’ was fast, we were told, and stragglers would be left behind. It’s not surprising that so many of us rushed to follow the bustling White Rabbit down his tunnel into a promised digital Wonderland where, like Alice, we fell prey to delusion. In Wonderland, we celebrated the new digital services as free, but now we see that the surveillance capitalists behind those services regard us as the free commodity.”

This is all even true of my boyfriend, who deludes himself with the belief that because he’s not on Facebook, Twitter etc., he has some privacy, but doesn’t acknowledge that by having an Amazon account and using Pinterest, he’s already lost that battle. Indeed, he has a mobile phone and an iPad, so he probably would have lost that battle without an Amazon account. When I mention this to him, and tell him what I’m going to be writing about here, he does say something very wise, “why do they send me adverts after I’ve bought it online?”

And this question goes to the heart of what is irritating me today: I may have lost the battle over data privacy, but why is it so hard for these companies to at least do something with my data that benefits me, and them? And so, I come to the Sephora Syndrome.

I have a Sephora account. I regularly buy cosmetics and beauty products from them, sometimes in the store, but mostly online. When I buy online, they give me the chance to get some free small samples of various things. I always take advantage of this. Maybe 30% of the time, I then go on to buy the item that I sampled. My first beef: the samples they show me seem utterly random, they know I’m not a teenage girl, why show me samples for acne control face washes? They know my age, my gender, where I live and what I’ve been buying from them for the last 10 years, if they showed me more personalized items, they’d likely convert even more samples into sales. Second beef: if I oversaw Sephora’s online marketing, I’d proactively send buyers like me, who often buy the full-sized items after sampling, free samples regularly.  And they know that I buy these items connected to free samples. Or at least they should.

The “they should” comment stems from what I do know from a career in and around technology for the last 30 years or so: most large companies, even technology companies, who you would think do better at this, have horrible disjointed IT systems that do a terrible job at seamless sharing data across an organization. And I don’t just mean that their CRM (customer relationship management) system doesn’t talk to their ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, though it probably doesn’t. I mean that on top of this, they may be using multiple CRM systems, multiple ERP systems and legacy systems that can’t connect to anything else. They probably still use Excel as a database-like system in some departments. And this is assuming that everything is digital rather than still paper-based.

I also use Fresh Direct, sometimes. I have a grocery store on the corner of my block, but there are some things that they don’t sell, and other things that are significantly cheaper on Fresh Direct. But I do have a grocery store 2 minutes’ walk away, so I can’t justify to myself paying the Fresh Direct monthly unlimited delivery charge, and even the one-time delivery fee sticks in my cheap ass craw. But sometimes, Fresh Direct offers a free delivery special. More than 50% of the time when they do this, particularly when there’s not a minimum purchase charge, I buy something. I’ve observed that Fresh Direct now sends me these offers more frequently, almost weekly at this point. This says to me, connected IT systems.

So what’s my point? I guess I have two: the first point is that, even though we should all be more vigilant about who we share our data with and what we’re sharing and even though there should be more GDPR-like regulation in the US, what’s probably saving us all somewhat from the results of this “surveillance capitalism” are the IT inefficiencies inherent in most companies. My second point is that technology like RPA (robotic process automation) are helping companies to connect their disjointed IT systems and making them far more efficient and effective. And as this happens, we may reap some benefit as consumers as the Sephora Syndrome is rectified, but we will also be even more at risk than before. Over the years, I’ve read some interesting articles about how technologies like blockchain might help consumers take back ownership and control of their data. And maybe that’s at least part of the answer: that we all have more awareness of who our data is being shared with, what it’s being used for and how that use might benefit us so that we can make more educated choices. Because  again, to quote the wisdom of my boyfriend, if a company is going to use my phone to track me, listen in on my conversations, take that data and feed me up a constant diet of terrifyingly specific ads, it could at least make sure those ads aren’t for the item I just purchased!