July 28, 2009, 12:00 AM

Wal-Mart unveils a detailed privacy policy covering web and stores

The aim is to create a unified policy, put it in one place and let consumers know where to find it, says chief privacy officer Zoe Strickland. The policy explains how Wal-Mart will market to consumers via text messages.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has unveiled an unusually detailed privacy policy covering customer data collected online and in stores, and is going on a campaign to let consumers know about it.

Wal-Mart, No. 13 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, unveiled the policy last week and will publicize it on Walmart.com and in its stores for 30 days before and after the effective date of Aug. 23, says chief privacy officer Zoe Strickland.

“We wanted to have one place that was clear and complete for all our data practices,” Strickland tells Internet Retailer. “Previously, we had separate offline and online policies and didn’t provide the detail we now have in our privacy policy.” The retail giant also will inform the 10-15 million customers on its e-mail mailing list via a newsletter, she says.

The privacy policy is highlighted in the left navigation bar at Walmart.com, which links to a one-page document describing key sections of Wal-Mart’s data practices. Consumers can also click to see the full document, which runs more than 3,800 words.

The Wal-Mart policy drew mixed reviews from privacy advocates. A spokesman for the Electronic Privacy Information Center expresses concern that Wal-Mart requires consumers to opt out of receiving e-mail and postal mail, because he says many are unaware of their right to do so. While the Electronic Frontier Foundation has not carefully reviewed Wal-Mart’s policy, a spokeswoman says, “It’s a great idea for companies to make it easy to read and understand their terms of service and privacy policies.”

As part of the launch of its new privacy policy, Wal-Mart has created a Privacy Preference Center where customers can choose what information they want to receive from Wal-Mart and whether the retailer can share their personal data with other companies. Consumers have to opt in to permit data-sharing, and for receiving information by phone and text message.

Wal-Mart will send other communications, such as e-mail, unless the customer opts out. In the preference center, a customer can opt out of receiving not only promotional e-mails, but also of e-mails containing surveys, product reviews and customer ratings. “If you don’t want them, we don’t want to send them to you,” Strickland says.

The inclusion of text messaging covers a marketing vehicle that Wal-Mart has only begun to employ. The retailer has tested during the holiday season sending consumers text message alerts about special offers, but only if they ask to receive such messages, Strickland says. Wal-Mart could also send customers in stores text messages telling them their prescriptions are ready. “That’s a concept we’re looking at closely,” Strickland says.

The privacy policy notes that Wal-Mart sometimes obtains information from outside sources about consumers, such as to correct its own information or to prevent fraud. If a customer asks what information Wal-Mart has about her, Wal-Mart will provide it, as long as it can get ready access to the data, which isn’t always easy in a giant company with disparate computer systems, Strickland says. “If we can find it, we’ll get it. If we can’t find it, we’ll tell you the kinds of things we have,” she says.

Attorney Lisa Sotto of law firm Hunton & Williams LLP, who advised Wal-Mart when the retailer was in the early stages of revising its privacy policy, says the retailer has done a good job of pulling out the key points of its policy in the shorter highlight document, while providing a link to the full policy. She also likes that “it’s written in plain English. Most people can understand what’s going on here.” Sotto, head of the privacy and information management group at the law firm, also likes the easy-to-use Privacy Preference Center. “That’s a way of engendering trust among site users because they know they can have some control over how their data is used,” she says.

Sotto says too many companies fail to update their privacy policies to take into account changes in state and federal laws, and developments in technology, such as the increased ability of retailers and other web site operators to track the behavior of Internet users. Privacy policies should disclose what behavior a web site operator collects and how the data will be used, she says.


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