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Math Businesses Science

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 dbc ( 135354 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:06PM (#39079261)

    Funny you should mention that. I grew up in a small town. When my wife and I were married, one of the local retailers was on my wife's gift registry for her china pattern. This retailer knew I had a (relatively, small-town-scale) wealthy aunt who frequented the shop. So the retailer loaded up on all the wacko, high mark-up accessory pieces for my wife's china pattern and every time my aunt came into the store she would get the sales pitch for a soup tureen or something. This went on for years.

  • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:27PM (#39079493) Journal

    People often forget there client card at my super market (AH) and I happily lend them mine. Must give them some interesting stats.

    The problem is that marketeers really think this matter. Lets examine this particular case for just how idiotic it is.

    Target profiles its EXISTING customers to be able to bombard them with coupons for products these same customers already pass everyday... Can win these customers for live? YOU ALREADY GOT THEM! And now instead of them buying the products they already seen at full price, you are reducing the price for no good reason.

    TV shows just how desperate marketeers are to prove they matter, the program you are watching interrupted by ads, for the program you were trying to watch followed by overlays of the next program, so please stay tuned... I would if you didn't ruin the program with all this begging. It is like going to a restaurant and having the chef come over after every bite to ask if you are enjoying yourself.

    Marketing doesn't sell products, marketing sells marketing. I am not saying ads don't work but rather that the constant overloading of ads, does not work. Check this for yourself, if an adblock takes longer then it used to, do you continue watching? Once ads were singular, to short to flick away. But the "going to the toilet" during the advertising is now a way of life and has been for decades. And here poor advertisers are trying to sell their products to viewers who are studying their toilet door.

    Myself? I barely bother with TV anymore. If for some masochistic reason I want to see what happens, I download it and get rid of ads altogether. I have ad block installed and ghostery. NOT because I mind being tracked so much but because I just can't stand the interuptions and delays that slow ads and scripts cause.

    This Target campaign targets existing customers into buy stuff they have to buy anyway and ignores new customers altogether... BRILLIANT. I know how effective it is, some marketeers and statisticians got payed big bugs. Mission accomplished. Any actual new customers that make up for the costs and potential lawsuits? (Oh you just wait till they get it wrong or target a woman who had an abortion, or didn't want her family to know or had a miscarriage).

  • by keefus_a ( 567615 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:29PM (#39079513)
    Except there's a clear defense to this particular assault. It's called cash.
  • by causality ( 777677 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @05:57PM (#39079805)

    Just like TFA, two months ago gmail started serving me nothing but breast pump, neonatal vitamin, and baby bottle ads. I'm a guy, but I am married so maybe they're trying to send a hint "why don't you have kids yet? Here we'll give you discount mail-order vitamins if you get busy!" But they also send me dating site ads. So if they do know I'm married, they don't have a high opinion of my marriage! Maybe that's why they want me to knock my wife up? ;)

    Soo... how much more competitive would their prices be, if they didn't spend money on these kinds of systems and marketing and customer tracking, and just accepted that there's nothing wrong with people buying what they want, when they decide they want it? Think they could undercut (or nearly undercut) Wal-mart while providing a more pleasant shopping experience (which wouldn't be hard)?

    Consider all the effort it takes to design systems like this, to hire employees to use and maintain them, to purchase the equipment, to pay for data centers, etc. I mean if a woman gives birth she's going to be buying diapers; if she likes your store she'll buy them there on her own without this sort of manipulation. Then there's the cost of ill will -- the desire to treat my private life like your personal marketing brochure without even showing me the basic respect of asking for my permission strongly disinclines me to do business with you. It's called dignity, and I realize it's going out of style but it isn't dead yet.

    So is this truly profitable in the long run, as a business practice? Or is it just another "make this quarter's numbers look good, the 'consumers' are used to bending over and taking this kind of thing anyway" type of deal?

  • by Applekid ( 993327 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @06:01PM (#39079839)

    But cash has serial numbers! Production dates! Traceability through the Fed and member banks down to the ATM you withdrew from, and the account you used to withdraw, and who has been paying money into that account.

    I post this kidding around, but I have to wonder if there has even been a truly dedicated group of people who have set to track a person that they could audit cash. I guess I'll know if I see a cashier scanning the bills I pay with.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @06:07PM (#39079879)

    Pay cash. That ends their data mining at Target (and Walmart, and everyone else).

    Don't count on it. For one thing Target has been installing license plate scanners in all their parking lots - ostensibly for "customer safety." But if you are in the habit of purchasing the same combination of products on most of your trips to the store all they need to do is compare that "purchase fingerprint" with the list of cars in the parking lot at the time and after a few iterations they will be able to link your license plate with your purchasing habits.

  • by tompaulco ( 629533 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @06:20PM (#39080031) Homepage Journal
    Track who buys what by Credit Card #.
    That is a pretty shady area. There are some pretty strict laws about when and how credit card data is to be stored. I don't think brick and mortars are allowed to store CC#s at all. Then there is the matter of tying that information back to an address. Unless you are doing this online, or you willing gave them your address, then there should be no legal way for them to tie a credit card number to an address. Of course, maybe in this case they were using a Target credit card in which case they probably do have the address.
  • by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @06:46PM (#39080261) Homepage Journal
    From the FBI's "Communities Against Terrorism" [] flyers, under the "What Should I Do?" heading:

    Be part of the solution. - Require valid ID from all new customers.
    - Keep records of purchases.
    - Talk to customers, ask questions, and listen to and observe their responses.
    - Watch for people and actions that are out of place.
    - Make note of suspicious statements, people, and/or vehicles.
    - If something seems wrong, notify law enforcement authorities.

    Yes, but it's harder for them to know when you do it, so it cancels out.

    ... until they convince (or force) all the shopkeeps to do their spying for them...

  • by jklovanc ( 1603149 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @07:14PM (#39080539)

    That kind of link would only be possible under the following conditions;
    1. You would have to purchase the exact same list every time you went there. A different list would create a instance of you car there but no identifying list.
    2. Noone else could purchase exactly the same list of items; An instance of the list being purchased without you car being there.
    At best there could be a probable link.

    The other issue is that there are hundreds of different lists purchased every day and hundreds of different cars parked in the lot ever day which creates a huge mamy to many relationship. Trying to link lists to cars is almot impossible.

    Who is to say you even went into the store as many Targets are in malls.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Friday February 17, 2012 @07:42PM (#39080835)

    I don't have the original article that tipped me off, but here is one from 2008 that talks about the early stages of the program. []

Loose bits sink chips.