Trial Balloon

Under Surveillance

Posted at 6:00 AM on March 23, 2010 by Dale Connelly (26 Comments)
Filed under: Bubby Spamden

A recent article in the New York Times explained how retailers are using video footage from cameras mounted inside their stores to redesign the entire retail "experience". Marketing experts watch how traffic flows around sales floors with an eye for how people shop. They're looking to eliminate anything that interferes with unbridled, profligate spending.

In the course of this noble work, observers also note some unusual things that I'm sure were not expected. One incident described in the article has to do with teenage boys who thought they were unobserved apparently putting their hands on a mannequin.

Coincidentally, I received the following note from an old friend:

Hello Mr. C.,

I have a question - you know some professional journalists, right? I mean old school journalists - the kind who do actual research that's not just whatever's on Wikipedia?
I'm asking because I need to find out if ALL police records are, like, in the public domain for anybody to see whenever they want?
I mean the records of shopping mall police especially.

I bet you're wondering why I ask. It's not that big a deal, really - just a huge misunderstanding. At the mall last weekend I found out that there are cameras all over the place, and the people at the stores are watching, like, ALL THE TIME! No wonder my mom can never find anybody to run the check out once she finally finds those slacks she spent HOURS looking for. They're all behind the scenes watching us on video.

How do I know? On Saturday afternoon I had a chance to talk for a long, long time with some people in the mall management.

All I have to say about the whole incident is this: Me and Kyle noticed that the mannequin had, like, her clothes slipping off and we were just trying to re-arrange the stuff so it wouldn't fall on the floor and get all trampled on and filthy and ruined. We weren't trying to steal anything because Duh! We're not girls so stealing girls clothes would be dumb.

And the security guy who said we were groping? C'mon! We learned in, like, 3rd grade that groping is wrong! There was even this whole controversy where a bunch of parents got upset that anybody even said the word "groping" to 3rd graders. Really. You can look it up!

Anyway, going into a mall and groping anyone is really bad, and doing it to a fake person is a whole different kind of pathetic. We're not that lame and we'd never do that, especially if we knew there was a camera on us.

Here's what I want to know - is this going to go on my permanent record? I was just about to decide that my best ever possible job is either to be a planet hunter, or to work with robots someday. But if it gets in my record that I was charged with mannequin abuse, I'm afraid I'll never get that chance. Heck, I may never get hired. Anywhere. Ever.

Your falsely accused friend,

I told Bubby that I would check with the real journalists I know to see what they had to say about shopping mall security records, but I doubt any of them would know. What's more likely, I told him, is that they would want his name and number so they could follow up on this emerging trend of apparent misbehavior being caught on retail store cameras. Was he OK with that, I wanted to know?

I got a three word response: "Uh, never mind."

When you go into a store, do you have the feeling you're being watched?

Comments (26)

Good morning, all!

I hadn't really thought of it. I suppose, however, that I am at times being watched. One of the projects I just completed at work was setting up a network for our security cameras and server in the office, and I have felt mildly aware of being watched since then.

Have a great day, everyone.

Posted by elinor | March 23, 2010 6:07 AM

geez, i already feel manipulated when stores rearrange just so we have to visit every aisle looking, and maybe that increases chance of impulse buying. but i don't imagine they are watching me - i have a list and i stick to it.
good morning, All

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | March 23, 2010 6:16 AM

Good Morning Members of the Brave New World,

I guess various people are finding uses for hiden video cameras to monitor people including governments. In some ways the government control described in the novel 1984 is starting be true. I think there were a large number of video cameras installed in St Paul to record people demonstrating during the the Republican convention and I don't know what they did with those cameras. They might still be there and still in use.

Posted by Jim | March 23, 2010 6:33 AM

I don't remember ever thinking about someone watching me, except when trying on clothes where they have stickers that say you could be taped. Swell.

Like Barb, I'm a list shopper. Go in, get what I want, leave. That's why I prefer strip malls to behemoths like MOA.

Posted by sherrilee | March 23, 2010 6:35 AM

Happy Tuesday, Heartlanders

Someone once told me that Americans naturally move through a sizable store by walking in and turning right, after which they do a big coiling maneuver to see what is in the back and then move toward the front. Do you suppose the Brits go left where we go right? Stores are designed with stuff at the very back that people have to have (milk) so you will walk past all the tempting stuff you might buy on impulse.

My daughter's first boyfriend had worked at Target long enough to know what body language alerted clerks to shoplifters. He used to make a game of walking around Target stores, not touching a thing, but giving off all these danger signals. Pretty soon he would be followed by a retinue of nervous clerks who were embarrassed to be trailing him but too spooked to just let him go.

Me...I don't worry about store cameras. Anybody who is reduced to watching film of me wandering around in a department store is to be pitied.

Posted by Steve in Saint Paul | March 23, 2010 6:38 AM

I spent about 15 minutes in a department store dressing room trying on clothes this past Sunday. When I was done I carried everything out of the dressing room and realized that I couldn't remember where it all went, so I took it back in the dressing room to find a place to leave it so it could be re-stocked by an employee. There was no such place. I went out again to try to find the right racks, got frustrated and returned to the dressing room resolved to leave the extra clothes on the hook in the room I'd been using. That's when I saw the sign - "Return all clothes to the sales floor". Ugh. Out I went again, looking for a clerk. There was no one around. I finally found a rack on the other side of the store that appeared to be a holding place for stuff going back to its rightful location. I ditched the extras there.
But if they were watching me on the in-store cameras, what did they think I was up to? And how do you remember where items came from when you're trying them on?

Posted by Dale Connelly | March 23, 2010 6:40 AM

Greetings! I don't usually feel like I'm being watched -- but I KNOW that I am being watched!

I work in a large grocery store, so I know there are cameras and microphones throughout the store. Plus, all managers and most employees wear radio headsets so we're always in contact with each other.

A week or so ago, employees/managers were tracking one young man throughout the store because he was seen putting a bottle of cheap vitamins in his pocket. He had other stuff in his basket, went through Self Checkout (a real giveaway), but never paid for vitamins. Police were called and he was nabbed when vitamins were not paid for.

There's all kind of stuff people try to do to steal or pay less for something. Switching tags on expensive meat products, etc. It's a small town, so managers recognize the ones who pulled a fast one in the past.

Having been a secretary in promotion/marketing areas, you'd be surprised the amount of research and manipulation that goes into every commercial, product name, print ad, shelf placement, label design, etc. It's all carefully designed to make you associate with said product and buy it -- again and again. It's all fascinating, but rather dubious as well.

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | March 23, 2010 6:42 AM

went to target just last week
to fix my shopping habbit
when i got hauled in
for abusing that chocolate rabbit

the easter bunny was on display
with baskets and chocolate eggs
and the shopping cart i was behind
ran over some chocolate legs

that belonged to a 6 foot tall bunny
they had set up there on display
had fallen while i wasn't looking and on the floor is where he lay

i was pushing that cart
and not paying attention
when i ran over the part of the bunny
its not polite to mention

and the cart kind of jostled
and fell toward the display
and i fell down on the floor wher the bunny she did lay

the cameras said i was groping
my fredom i could have won it
but right there on video
it showed that i had done it.

they took me to the station
and booked me on a charge
of molesting a chocolate bunny
the one in the store which was large

it made me feel angry
to be booked in this way
i felt i was wronged
and objested all day

on the fromt page of the paper next day
where the photos us me
with that chocolate bunny spread eagle
and me between her knees

it was an bleak, awful day
i knew what an ache in the heart meant
but for the contact i made
with meg from survaolance department

she said it excited her
in a odd sort of way
to watch the films of me
and the bunny that day

so i bring my godivas and
get all the affection
i ever hoped for in this world
all because of the detection

that was captured on film
in the target store aisle
with that 6 foot tall bunny
on the bottom of the pile

Posted by tim | March 23, 2010 6:54 AM

Perhaps Bud Buck would be willing to do an investigation on teenage boys and mannequins. He may be begging for work right now!

Posted by Aaron | March 23, 2010 7:07 AM

Good morning RH,

Bubby's hilarious letter brings back an experience I had at JCPenny when I was really little, probably 5-ish. I was following my mom around and we wound up in the men's underwear department. Up on a case was a partial manikin - no head and cut off at mid-thigh. It was wearing a white undershirt and briefs--don't ask me which brand. The area below the waist caught my eye because it wasn't all smooth there the way female underwear manikins are. There was a hint of bulginess that I was unfamiliar with, being just 5 and all. Compelled to satisfy my curiosity, I stood on tiptoe and was able to reach it -- "ah, cottonballs," I remember thinking. I thought I had been gentle, but to my horror, the manikin toppled backward. It didn't land on the floor, thank goodness, but I was very afraid someone would find out and I'd be in big trouble, and I NEVER touched a half-male manikin again.

Congratulations Barb and triplets!

Posted by Donna | March 23, 2010 7:12 AM

OMG Tim -- that is such a funny poem! Cheers to you for making my day!

Posted by Joanne in Big Lake | March 23, 2010 7:14 AM

Nice work tim, bringing together department store surveillance and chocolate easter bunnies in an epic poem. Perhaps 1,000 years from now, this will be part of a new Illiad.

And Donna, you remind me of Jim Ed's favorite childhood trauma story about when he knocked over the family Christmas tree. Mortifying!

Posted by Dale Connelly | March 23, 2010 7:42 AM

Tim - so weird, so funny!
Donna - your career as a mischief-maker began at a very early age
no cameras in the barn. i don't want to know what they are doing out there. i had a friend who used an infant monitor instead of going out to the barn to check on impending deliveries. she said she got NO SLEEP because it was so fascinating to listen to all the noises. i'd rather get up every two hours.
barn cameras can be purchased at great expense and i'm sure some folks have them. probably better than TV.

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | March 23, 2010 7:47 AM

Tim - fabulous poem. (What happened to the bunny ears is what I want to know.)

Watched? I'm sure I have been - even if it's not on camera, I'm sure that what I do at work on the internet is monitored (though perhaps not closely watched), cameras other places, real people watching when you can't tell...some day it feels creepy. Other days I choose not to think about it lest I get too cranky and start railing at the security eye in the corner of the store.

Posted by Anna | March 23, 2010 7:50 AM

Does anyone remember stories about Gypsies coming to town? My father had a gas station/coffee shop in our town, and I remember a couple of occasions when the local police warned all the businesses in town that a caravan of gypsies (in cars and trucks) were traveling through the region and were shoplifting anything that wasn't nailed down. It was true, unfortunately, and I remember hearing that shop owners would follow the Gypsies through the stores and watch them like hawks but to no avail, as things were stolen under their very noses.

Posted by Renee | March 23, 2010 8:42 AM

While I'm not keen on being watched, think of the poor watcher. I've been given tours of several surveillance rooms, and it's some of the most mind-numblingly boring work you can envision. Imagine day after day of watching people shop, or pass by on the street, or whatever. Sure, the first couple of times someone thinks no one's looking and squeezes the toilet tissue are amusing, but after the first few days, same old, same old. Sometimes I feel it my duty to provide amusement. Wave to the camera in the elevator, or make a funny face. Of course, the guard watching that monitor has probably seen that too many times as well.

Most of the time you have one person watching 20+ monitors, so the chances of anyone looking at any given moment are pretty slim. The main purpose of a lot of security cameras is to record things so that if something is found to be amiss later, you can go back and look.

So, Bubby - you provided a noble service. You brought some joy into a poor, underpaid security guard's otherwise humdrum day by giving them something new and exciting. No wonder they talked to you for hours. It beats going back and watching the monitors some more.

Posted by Don in West St. Paul | March 23, 2010 8:59 AM

Yes, how sad that it's come to this -- vendors are so desperate for sales that they have to watch our every move. Steve, I'd love to know what some of these "danger signals" are when shopping. Who knows, we may be giving false signals without knowing...

I spent an hour or more at Ridgedale recently. I honestly hadn't been to a big mall for a couple of years, and was pretty put off by it all. Remember Michael in Stranger in a Strange Land, when they would try to explain something from current culture to him, like football? HOW would we explain a big shopping mall to someone from Mars, or for that matter, from the 1600s?

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | March 23, 2010 11:57 AM

Has anyone here watched the live bear den cam at It's fascinating (although much of the time not much is happening) but I feel bad for the bear, Lily, having no privacy.

Posted by Cindy Atsatt | March 23, 2010 12:31 PM

Oh help, I didn't want to post my whole name.

Posted by Cindy | March 23, 2010 12:34 PM

Think outside the mall box: why do you think you are being watched only in the mall? Their parking lots are full of cameras, as is much of downtown Mankato, and I assume, other cities. But much of that is good. They have caught criminals and molesters here with the cameras.
On the tenth anniversary of Hugedale, MPR did a series of shows about it. They talked about how it is such a perfect place for marketing. They talked about how it is so different from say Brookdale. In MOA you are almost never not right in front of a store. That’s why upper levels are open in the middle and the lower level full of kiosks and such. And how they can watch people but also just study and adjust movement patterns by pixel analysis (which is how they judge traffic flow in the Cities). When I am in a big mall in the Cities I sit and watch and analyze what is going on, since I have to stay out of crowds. But it is fun to watch like that, and watch people’s behavior patterns to see what they show about themselves and shopping patterns.
And if you are not willing to be watched, get offline, turn off your TV, have no phone, use only cash. Get off every grid.
20 years ago there was a show on ABC about how marketing companies know everything about all of us. The man who was doing it was shown everything about the neighborhood to where he was moving and some details about his next door neighbors. In Europe if you send out a mailing that suggest you know such things about people, they will shut you down. But here we have let it all out, long ago.
15 years ago my son “edited mortgage applications” for Norwest Bank; that is, he checked out what people said. Never lie; they know it all. One day he was bored so he looked up his sister and ended up calling my wife and telling her our daughter was overdrawn at the local CU. She went in to cover it and they told her they were just going to call us so they would not have to charge for the overdraft. (Do such banks still exist?) Out of curiosity I talked to a person on one of those calls about your credit card, pushed 1 and got a person. He knew all about all of my current loans. Then I told him off; and he threatened me. Over the next couple of months, every time we got that call, I pushed 1 and every time it was the same man, who immediately knew I had been a nuisance before and told me off. So I learned they must be very small and they track calls in a digital log.
Nice poem, tim. You can actually buy, of course, such chocolate items, but not at Target.
Congrats, barb. So how did kids survive before people put sweaters on them?

Posted by Clyde | March 23, 2010 12:47 PM

Watch out Cindy. We have your whole name and we are going to get you!!
(See my last post.)

Posted by Clyde | March 23, 2010 12:50 PM

Cly de Teaser
i know - it's pretty weird, knitting little sweaters for the kiddos. they only wear them for the first few hours, to give them a warm welcome into a much colder world. when they begin to get up and seriously eat and move around, the sweaters come off (whether i remove them or not).
today (their real birth day) they are alternating between mad jumping/hopping and total unconscious sleep. Alba is getting stronger but still not eating much. chewing cud though, and that's good.
i admit i am the biggest baby-er of my animals.
before they put sweaters on the babies they would have died of cold; that's why the does have so many. i mean, what sense does it make to have three kids and only two faucets? but these three WILL live.

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | March 23, 2010 1:31 PM

BTW I did finish my washing stick poem.
Yes, I am teasing. Wha tare pets but sublimation of parenting instincts?
The truth is that nature is designed to compensate for a lower survival rate than modern agriculture and human medicine have allowed. I read a fascinating article, an award-winning piece of writing, about how women in modern cultures probably have too many periods. That women in many “primitive” cultures have less than half as many, because of much more frequent pregnancies, later onset of puberty, earlier menopause, and poorer nutrition, etc. This may explain much higher rates of related cancers in women in modern cultures because every period is an invitation to a growth.. My mother used to correctly say that we are to clean for our own health. Every time you see germ-killing cleaners and soaps, you are watching super germs being bred.

Posted by Clyde | March 23, 2010 2:01 PM

Welcome, Cindy whatsyername -- I too wish that poor bear had some privacy.

Barb, I'm glad you checked in with an update on the goatlets... do that again, ok?

Clyde - yes, our fanaticism about killing germs helps create kids who have no immunity to viruses, allergies... more if you google "Let the Kids Get Dirty".

Posted by Barbara in Robbinsdale | March 23, 2010 3:33 PM

well, i oughta live forever then - i am soooo dirty with doeling yellow poops, big goat poops, on my knees, under my shoes, and i'm sure on my hands. will try to clean before milking in a minute.
i agree on the "bear cam" also - she may figure out how to turn it off. where is Bart when we need him????

Posted by barb in Blackhoof | March 23, 2010 4:55 PM

Enjoying American Routes tonight, just checking in to be counted! Thanks Radio Heartland!

Posted by Michelle in Winona | March 23, 2010 6:40 PM

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