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Physical Cookie

noun [countable]

a small electronic device which is taken into shops and links individual customers to advertisements and special offers based on information about their shopping habits

'Is this plastic device the silver bullet that malls are looking for? Last fall, a mall in Helsinki offered shoppers targeted deals if they agreed to tote a key fob with them. Some 14,000 customers tried out the plastic RFID device, which is called a Physical Cookie.'

Mashable 25th February 2015

If someone offered me a Physical Cookie, I'd eagerly anticipate a sweet treat, but it turns out I could be in for a surprise, since with this expression it's more a matter of electromagnetic rather than chocolate chips …

the idea of gathering information about your likely purchasing habits … is now beginning to make the leap from virtual to real-world environments via the Physical Cookie

Anyone who browses the internet on a regular basis can't fail to have come across the concept of a cookie, a small file that a website you've visited sends to your computer and which contains information about your use of the internet. Though cookies have prompted a degree of concern about user privacy, they're now an established mechanism on the modern web, often handling important authentication procedures as people navigate personal accounts, log in and out, etc. That said, cookies are undeniably a wee bit intrusive when they track our online lives for marketing purposes – we all know the scenario, you've spent a few minutes looking at a potential purchase and miraculously advertisements for the same or similar products flash up at you at every turn for the next week. It's this concept, the idea of gathering information about your likely purchasing habits so that advertising can be individually tailored, which is now beginning to make the leap from virtual to real-world environments via the Physical Cookie.

The Physical Cookie (physical because, though the information is electronic, it's stored on a touchable object) is a small plastic device, usually in the form of a key fob, which users pocket when they go on a shopping trip. A bit like a tracking tag, a Physical Cookie uses what's known as RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. When the shopper enters a store, the cookie identifies them and makes a connection to digital advertising screens which then display information about products, offers, etc tailored to their individual shopping habits. A short video which neatly demonstrates the idea can be found at the citation link above.

Initial trials of Physical Cookies suggest that they're reasonably successful from the retailer's perspective, a test case reporting a significant increase in the time shoppers spent inside the store. Promoters of the concept insist that, since they don't require personal details (name, address, occupation, etc), Physical Cookies aren't an invasion of privacy, but rather represent a 'marketing-as-a-service' kind of experience, where shopping environments become 'smarter' by responding to consumer behaviour and matching individual needs and interests.

Background – Physical Cookie

The Physical Cookie is the brainchild of Finnish property investment company Sponda and advertising agency TBWA\Helsinki. Launched in autumn of 2014, it attracted publicity as one way for so-called 'bricks-and-mortar' stores to tap into the knowledge bases so effectively exploited by online retailers.

The online sense of the word cookie dates back to the early years of the internet, first used in the mid-nineties and appearing in various incarnations such as HTTP cookie, browser cookie, tracking cookie, authentication cookie, etc. It's derived from the earlier expression magic cookie, computer jargon for a packet of data which is passed between programs but whose contents are opaque in that they're not always readable by the receiving program – hence the use of magic.

Cookie in its edible sense was first used in American English in the early 18th century. It is derived from the Dutch word koekje, meaning 'little cake'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

Last month …

Read last weeks's BuzzWord. Sandscape.

This article was first published 9th February 2016.

Open Dictionary


a form of location that involves the underwater detonation of a bomb which causes sound waves that are picked up by ships

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