On Halloween night, the comedy writer Ariel Dumas received a hair-raising phone call. Dumas had been browsing Wayfair online when her phone rang with an unfamiliar number. It was a Massachusetts area code, so she picked it up, on the longshot chance it might be Senator Elizabeth Warren, who often calls her supporters at random.
“It was a Wayfair employee saying they noticed I was browsing their website,” she later told her 56,000 followers, in a tweet that quickly took off online. “[S]o happy creepy Halloween I guess.”
Turns out this wasn’t some kind of Halloween prank on the part of the online housewares giant, whose stock took a tumble Thursday after its third-quarter earnings revealed steep losses. Instead, it’s an aggressive new tech-enabled sales strategy that Wayfair says is designed to help customers with complicated purchases — but that may risk freaking them out.
Dumas described on Twitter how the rest of the call went down: She told the young employee on the line that the aggressive sales strategy made her uncomfortable; he apologized. “I told him I appreciated his passion for customer service but could he please send the message up the chain that this was nothing less than horrifying and he readily agreed to do so.”
Other commenters said they’d received similar calls from Wayfair. One person who said they were a former Wayfair employee said the practice “happens a lot.”
The company’s share price has fallen by more than 50 percent since March of this year — accounting for about $8 billion in market value loss — and that’s making Wall Street nervous.
Wayfair spokeswoman Susan Frechette said the company recently introduced a new customer service team, the Wayfair Insider Program, that monitors shoppers’ online browsing habits and then steps in to offer assistance as a way to close a sale.
“To best serve our customers and help them find what they are looking for, Wayfair has a team of specialists that follows up by phone with customers who have already made a purchase,” Frechette wrote via e-mail. That team “follows up on previous orders and past site activity that indicates strong interest in a particular product category.”
Frechette said the calls were not based on real-time browsing and noted that customers get an e-mail from Wayfair offering assistance before anyone places a call.
“Many customers find this helpful especially when shopping categories that include mattresses, flooring, plumbing, upholstery and other high consideration products where specialized expertise is particularly helpful,” she wrote.
She said that there is a 48-hour lag time between someone browsing on the site and receiving a call, and that shoppers provided their phone number to the company in advance of their being contacted.
The decision to move from monitoring keystrokes on a shopping site to calling someone about a sale is a tricky one for retailers, said Marc Rotenburg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. And it’s a line that not every company would choose to cross.
“This is a stark reminder that companies collect far more personal information about us than many of us know,” he said.
Rotenburg said companies have been collecting and collating data on customers for decades, using “third party enhancement firms” to obtain information such as a home phone number in order to fill in the gaps on a customer profile.
Today, online tools embedded in websites and browsers help companies track a shopper’s path to purchase, and they can also provide insight into their intentions, said John Cheney-Lippold, a University of Michigan associate professor who studies Internet privacy. Companies can gather information about who you are using cookies, scripts, and tracking pixels, and then share that data across other websites, he said.
It’s the reason why so many ads follow you if you’ve been ogling a particular handbag online, or why you now get an e-mail from an e-commerce site reminding you that you put something into your digital shopping cart but didn’t complete a purchase. Wayfair’s app also sends daily emoji-laden alerts encouraging users to purchase the items they’ve been browsing.
Using the uBlock Origin adblocking tool, Cheney-Lippold found that Wayfair used 103 different trackers to pull information about users, which could include IP addresses, browsers, and computer operating systems, he said. Most of the trackers were created internally by the company, but Wayfair also allowed Pinterest, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google Ads, and Facebook to gather data from the site. Cheney-Lippold found that the number of trackers on Wayfair’s site far outpaced its e-commerce competitors: Amazon had 24 trackers running on its site on his first visit; Overstock had 27; and Macy’s had just five.
“It’s a little bit obscene,” he joked. “I know you’re watching me, but that’s too many eyes on me.”
But these digital bread crumbs don’t seem to unnerve people as much as getting a call from a customer service rep does.
One person who responded to Dumas’s tweet said they canceled their order after receiving a similar call Thursday.
“They asked if I was a business and would I be buying anything from Wayfair for that business,” they wrote. “So creepy. I told them to remove my phone number from their list AND I cancelled that back ordered side table!!”
Another person was similarly distressed. “This happened to [me] yesterday!!!! I told them to never ever call me again and remove my number from their call list as well!!!” they wrote on Twitter.
Dumas and the other Twitter respondents who received calls from Wayfair did not respond to a request for comment. It was not clear whether they had made prior purchases from the site.
Rotenburg said companies need to be “very careful” in deciding how to use the information customers provide, “precisely because there’s a sense that you can’t cross the creepy line without losing people or having people fire up a tweetstorm.”
Not everyone seemed too fazed by the practice, however, chalking it up to life in the Internet age. And some poked fun at the spooky timing of the solicitation.
“We’ve traced the call,” one commenter tweeted, “it’s coming from inside the Housewares.”Janelle Nanos can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.