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Retailers, please stop bluntly asking for my email address at the till

Spam: better in a tin than my inbox

The other day I placed a roll of sticky tape on the check-out desk of Office Outlet and prepared to hover my debit card over the contactless payment machine.

“Can I have your email address?” asked the member of staff.

“No, thank you.” I said as politely as possible, when it sounds impolite. I wonder how many people submit to this trick, dishing out an email address – perhaps not a real one – instead of risking possible impoliteness or awkwardness?

It’s no longer safe to buy even simple things like sticky tape, birthday cards, socks or gloves without being asked, often bluntly, for an email address.

Some have a slightly different tactic: “Can I have your email address to send your receipt?”. Because I might lose the printed receipt, but won’t lose the email one in a sea of promotional emails?

The reason these retailers want an email address is quite obvious – it’s a direct link to try and persuade us to part with more money, with the potential to enable them to profile us and target things at us accordingly. All great for them, but the reason to actually let them have it is less clear, particularly when they don’t even give a reason, they just ask for it.

I dare say that if I asked “why”, I’d probably be told “so we can send you special offers”. But that’s just not reason enough for me.

Is it really useful for me to have every retailer I’ve ever bought something from sending me emails? Do I really want to have to wade through all these offers in amongst the emails I really do want to read? Will any amount of offers make me return to buy more sticky tape before this roll has run out?

Clearly, there are going to be times when some people will value such emails. But this blanket and often blunt approach seems lazy and actually unhelpful to both parties. What’s the point of a load of fake email addresses or unread emails for the retailer – and what’s the point of an inbox load of sales spam for many people?

It’s also a worry now we’re so close to the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Near obliging people (saying “no” feels awkward) to hand over an email address at the till without any reason why doesn’t appear to conform to the regulation’s rule on consent:

“The conditions for consent have been strengthened, and companies will no longer be able to use long illegible terms and conditions full of legalese, as the request for consent must be given in an intelligible and easily accessible form, with the purpose for data processing attached to that consent. Consent must be clear and distinguishable from other matters and provided in an intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language. It must be as easy to withdraw consent as it is to give it.​”

“What’s your email address?” is hardly a reason for having it, so you can’t consent to whatever they might do with it. And those wanting to email a receipt shouldn’t actually do anything else with your email address – you only consented to receiving a receipt.

Being more selective over who these companies want in their databases and being compliantly up front about why is going to take a bit more effort than asking everyone for an email address – but surely it’s going to be better for everyone?

Pareto’s 80/20 rule has been hijacked by marketing writers to move from economics to sales, implying that 80% of sales volume comes from 20% of customers. Frankly it’s a bit too arbitrary for my liking when applied like that, but there is often some truth in the general principle. In many of the businesses I’ve worked with, there’s a core of customers who contribute more sales than many others combined.

Yes, by all means, these are great people to be in touch with – and they’re potentially more likely to value you being in touch too.

In the case of Office Outlet, if I was an office or purchasing manager for a business requiring lots of office stationery type products, then maybe yes, I’d value some offers coming my way. When I just buy a roll of sticky tape once in a while, then, no, I’m just not suddenly going to buy a laptop or a box of folders because you’ve sent me an email with a small discount.

So retailers, please stop bluntly asking me for my email address whenever I buy something from you. Perhaps decide if I’m really useful to you first – and give me a very good reason to sign up if you really want my details.

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