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How Companies Learn Your Secrets 354

Hugh Pickens writes "For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Now the NY Times Magazine reports on how companies like Target identify those unique moments in consumers' lives when their shopping habits become particularly flexible and the right advertisement or coupon can cause them to begin spending in new ways. Among life events, none are more important than the arrival of a baby, and new parents are a retailer's holy grail. In 2002, marketers at Target asked statisticians to answer an odd question: 'If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn't want us to know, can you do that?' Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. 'We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there's a good chance we could capture them for years,' says statistician Andrew Pole. 'As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they're going to start buying everything else too.' As Pole's computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a 'pregnancy prediction' score and he soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant. About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry. 'My daughter got this in the mail!' he said. 'She's still in high school, and you're sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?' The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again but the father was somewhat abashed. 'It turns out there's been some activities in my house I haven't been completely aware of. She's due in August. I owe you an apology.'"
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How Companies Learn Your Secrets

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  • by Marillion ( 33728 ) <ericbardes AT gmail DOT com> on Friday February 17, 2012 @04:58PM (#39079133)
    Except that it actually happened. I work in a biomedical informatics group and the same techniques we use to find features that can detect early infection in cells can be applied to marketing data. If you have enough training data, for example, start with 2000 known customers who started buying diapers and formula on a certain date. Now what did they start buying seven months before that? Now find the customers who match that profile. Data are data.
  • by Beardo the Bearded ( 321478 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:28PM (#39079501)

    Indeed. I've got an eight-year-old daughter. When she was newborn, the older guys in band were saying, "you think you're having sleepless nights now? Wait until she's 16 and dating."

  • by brainzach ( 2032950 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:46PM (#39079693)

    The marketing campaign tries to get customers to buy new different products based on their past purchases. They want to identify pregnant women so they can encourage them to buy products at Target once they have a baby, instead of the customer shopping at a competitor for their baby needs.

    Target figured out that people change their shopping habits the most when they had a baby, so it provides them with the biggest opportunity to win over customers. Knowing that someone is pregnant is marketing gold. The methods are based of research and the evidence is supported in Target's sales. It isn't just a bunch of BS.

  • by LordZardoz ( 155141 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:48PM (#39079711)

    Lets have a fictional person called Phil (a victim) and Bob (the guy posting the info) for the purpose of this post.

    If Bob posts Phil's name, address, and phone number in a message board without Phil's permission, there is most likely some kind of hostile intent. This usually happens when Phil has managed to make Bob angry for some stupid reason (flame war, abortion debate, maybe Phil is just being a jackass here. Who knows? The reason is not relevant). So Bob gets Phil's info and posts it online in that message board. Why does Bob do this?

    Most likely, Bob is hoping someone will go to Phil's house and beat him up. Or break a few windows. Maybe Bob just wants someone to take a crap in a paper bag, light it on fire, and throw it on Phils porch. The intent is to make it easy for all of Phils enemies to harass or inflict harm on Phil.

    Target or Walmart do not have any hostile intent. They just want to sell you stuff. They gather and analyze data, and the only objective harm thaty they would intentionally cause is filling your mail box with unwanted spam. I would agree that doing so should earn someone a kick in the nuts anyway, but it is only annoying, not dangerous. In many cases they are using info they gathered themselves for their own benefit. It could also be argued that what they are doing is of mutual benefit: Walmart gets Phil to buy stuff, Phil will have a chance to buy something he wants.

    The only problem for Phil is when access to that data is then sold, shared , or illegally accessed by those whose interests may run against him. There needs to be legal protections in place for Phil, and Walmart needs to be held responsible for any harm that comes of them keeping that database.


"Well, it don't make the sun shine, but at least it don't deepen the shit." -- Straiter Empy, in _Riddley_Walker_ by Russell Hoban