Perils of Competitive Shopping


When package designers go to the store, they sometimes go under false pretenses: not as true consumers, but merely pretending to be. Maybe it’s for a bit of “competitive shopping” (to check what products are occupying the shelves that a client’s new product will need to compete with). Or maybe it’s to checkout the display fixtures for a product proposal to a particular store chain.

Whenever I must do this, I get a little anxious, because managers and store security, trained to be suspicious of atypical consumer behavior, often seem to detect it in me.

Once I was in a local beauty supply store, doing research for a client who already had quite a few products on their shelves. Apparently, something about me aroused suspicion. Most of the other customers there were woman, and I was a man. Granted, they were not taking notes on a little notepad while they shopped as I was—but, whatever the reason, I somehow attracted some unwanted attention. When the proprietor challenged me, I tried to put her mind at ease, but she would have none of it. I told her who my client was and explained that I worked on packaging for products that might eventually come to be sold in her store. No dice. She forbade me to write anything more down in my notepad. And even though I purchased some “Alberto VO5 Conditioning Hairdressing for Gray, White & Silver Blond Hair” — a product which I use — she still insisted that I leave the store!

Another time, my partner was asked by a client to meet at a Kohl’s

in New Jersey. They wanted to go over display options for their

upcoming proposal to the Kohl’s buyer. Taking pictures, however,

quickly brought down an officious “assistant to the assistant manager”

who demanded to know who had given them permission to take photos?


it's a symptom of the disconnect between the corporate office and those

in the retail trenches, but even after explanations were made and phone

calls were made, confirming the voracity of their story, no further

photos were taken that day.

I was at a Walgreen’s in Manhattan,

with another client looking at display fixtures for a proposal we were

working on. She had a tape measure with her and the moment she tried to

discreetly measure the hight of a shelf, we were busted.


take notes. Can’t take photos. Can’t take measurements. It’s as if

store managers think we are master thieves planning some intricate

heist! Or maybe they think we are like Jeffery Allen Manchester (featured on America’s Most Wanted)

who hid in a Toys-R-Us store for over two months and eventually

fashioned a tiny, fully-equipped secret apartment under the stairs in a

neighboring Circuit City store. (You know, like maybe that’s why she

and I were taking measurements.)


Human nature, being what it is, if you are treated like a sneak it makes you sneaky. Now when pictures are needed, we make them on the sly. No flash, obviously. On a recent visit to Kohl’s to (again) study their display fixtures, I used my cell phone to take the photos. It worked, but I felt like an idiot, walking around having pretend conversations, “Yeah? Okay. Uh huh...” occasionally pausing as if to check my calls, but in fact, taking forbidden (and quite blurry ) photos!


I recently received a gift from Gillette in the mail. A new Fusion razor for my 18th birthday even though it is not my birthday and it is especially not my 18th birthday! Okay, so Gillette’s database includes some inaccurate information. Apparently, it’s not for lack of trying. (More on that paranoid statement later...)


Since the Fusion promotional box was orange (and since I'm always writing about orange packaging) I thought I would blog something about it. Noting the sci-fi style graphics on this—and so many other men’s grooming products—I thought I’d start with a little on-line research. (First the on-line research, then the competitive shopping.)

As luck would have it, the very first thing I found on-line was this “boycott Gillette" site that, at first I thought a was just some crazy paranoid conspiracy theory...

...but according to the website:

Gillette has been caught hiding tiny RFID surveillance chips in the packaging of its shaving products. These tiny, high tech spy tags are being used to trigger photo taking of unsuspecting customers!

Whenever a shopper picks up a packet of razor blades from a spy shelf, SNAP! A hidden camera secretly takes a closeup photo of the shopper's face. (And a second photo is snapped at the cash register to make sure the product is paid for!)

So yesterday I went to my local CVS to check into this, and sure enough the display of Gillette razors did have a hidden camera and electronics just as pictured on the website! There was even a disclosure sign which CVS had posted that pretty much said that, in the vicinity of that shelf, customers were likely to be photographed. I wish I could remember the exact wording. Maybe I should have taken a picture of that sign...) What is it that CVS stands for again...? Covert Video Surveillance?


I know you’re thinking, “If there’s a sign warning you about it, then it’s not covert” and you’re right. No more covert than me when I go on my secret reconnaissance missions to drug store chains (with notepad, secret camera & discreet tape measure).

Maybe stores have privacy rights too. If so, then maybe I am in no position to be sounding the clarion call against retail surveillance.  Still, I can't help wondering, if I’m not allowed to take photos in a store, how come they can take photos of me?

(Anyone out there with similar competitive shopping experiences?)