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Confessions Of A Plum Market Paparazzi

Topics: Editorial & Opinion | Add A CommentBy admin | October 28, 2010

OR: How taking innocuous photos at Plum Market can lead to veiled accusations of corporate espionage.


One of the nice displays at Plum Market.
Too bad I’ll never lay eyes on them again.

I had an interesting experience today which – in an indirect way – highlighted the corporate personhood vs individual personhood rights issue. The irony being the fact that it was a fellow personhood that was attempting to assert the corporation’s “rights”, ultimately at some small expense to the corporation. Let me explain. I do a lot of random small business consulting that runs the gamut from point of sale and display advice to web marketing development. Because of my work, and simply because of my nature, I am constantly – in fact almost compulsively – analyzing products, packaging, advertisements, and retail layouts. Today, for the first time amongst many visits to retail stores, I was more or less accused of being a possible corporate spy. I was in a local Plum Market, admiring the spacious, clean displays in their wine section. I ended up taking a few photos for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to show their wine racks to a friend who’s trying to figure out an interesting way to outfit his growing wine cellar. Although Plum’s display racks presented wines in a reasonably attractive way, they also frankly looked like they would be fairly cheap, and suit my friend’s simplistic modern tastes. The other reason I was taking a few photos was because I simply wanted to make a visual note of what I considered less-than-ideal display design that while visually appealing, was oddly flawed in a few ways. I was in fact doing casual research that would probably influence the ideas I would share with a client. It was after I had taken a few photos that an employee walked up to me and said “Excuse me, I noticed you were taking photos”. The camera was already back in my pocket at this point, but I had nothing to hide, and said “Yes, I was. Is that a problem?”, to which he replied: “Well, that depends on WHY you were taking photographs. Are you a competitor?” I replied – quite honestly – that no, I was not a competitor. In spite of being rather annoyed by his accusatory tone, I maintained a brief, courteous dialogue with him in which he explained that “lots of our competitors come in to copy our model, we’re a very successful operation”. There were a number of things that raised my hackles about this interaction. First of all, the simple fact that he approached me with suspicion rather than as a customer. I can understand (within reason) a retail operation’s concern about corporate espionage, but it was immediately obvious that this man’s reason for concern was rather nebulous, and that he was sort of justifying his low-key accusation on the fly. It’s important to note that I’m a fairly distinctive looking person with white hair, wearing a fairly conspicuous vintage grey outfit, taking a couple of pictures, making absolutely no effort to hide the fact. Wouldn’t a “spy” be wearing sweats and discreetly taking pictures with their iPhone, so they could transmit their covert surveillance photos back to headquarters? I’m not the first to raise this question; there are plenty of question & answer posts out there in which people discuss the same topic. And I don’t question a retail store’s right to state a “no photos” policy, as long as they post it. But all the arguments against taking photos while you shop don’t fly with me. Almost anything one could “steal” (i.e., visual presentation) in this context certainly doesn’t require a camera to copy, and if in fact the ideas being “stolen” are somehow a legitimate legal trademark of the store and they get copied and implemented somewhere else, the business can pursue legal action. This article sums up some of my thinking, but this goes deeper for me. Later in the day I asked a barrista at a local cafe how they’d respond to a person randomly taking photos in their cafe, and they said they’d be concerned. When I asked why, they fumbled at a similar answer about competitors. To me, this smacks more of knee-jerk, post 9/11, culture of fear reactions than rational policy. Because I’d bet this month’s Google AdSense revenue that these same stores will let Google take the same kinds of photos without batting a lash, without Google having to resort to these devious methods recommended by The Consumerist. Because you know, a person working for a corporation can’t trust a person, but they can trust another corporation. Watch for a future piece on this topic; I plan to test it out in a variety of stores and present the results. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this though.