There’s been a lot of chatter on the interwebs this week about a NYT article regarding Target’s ability to predict consumer behavior. The article describes how a Target data cruncher was able to draw connections between shoppers’ purchases that were so robust, he could predict which shoppers were going to have babies- without the shoppers having to register their pregnancy in any way. The mathematician responsible for this curious feat looked at the purchasing patterns of people who officially had babies (women who bought baby food, clothes etc) to determine what sorts of items they bought before their actual pregnancy. He was then able to apply this formula to other shoppers to calculate a “pregnancy prediction” score, and shoppers who exercised similar patterns to almost-moms were targeted with specific promotions and coupons.
There’s a few interesting things going on here. First, why does Target care so much about targeting pregnant women? As the article mentions, moms are a marketing landmine. They need tons of products, need them in a convenient way, and are likely to stay loyal to the brands or stores they frequent early on in mommyhood. So, turning pregnant women into loyal Target shoppers is best when done before the baby is even born: the habit of using Target for baby needs will likely stick. Second, wow! It’s pretty crazy that Target’s math whiz was able to figure out what clusters together and the timing that pregnant women use when they prepare for having a baby. Predictive analytics is a very important field right now, and it’s pretty interesting what smart people can do with data.
Third, though, is consumer concern: many people think this is kind of creepy. Target didn’t do anything illegal. They already had the data. Most companies wouldn’t have been able to pull this off, but not because they don’t want to. Most retailers simply don’t have the manpower needed to actually crunch through all the data they get. Other companies have tried to get around this by outright asking pregnant women to register as pregnant within the store’s database, so they know who to target with diaper ads, baby powder coupons, etc. Target went about it in a way that’s roundabout in some ways, direct and logical in others.
It seems almost Big Brother-like, to use a cliche term, for Target to be able to predict shoppers’ behavior without being told. But is it any weirder to you than when Google tailors ads to your online behavior? I personally find that creepier. When I shop at Target, I know they have a record of what I buy because I am consciously using their store. When Google collects my data I know it’s happening, but I don’t have the same conscious thought process of a transaction happening each time I send an email or search for something on the Internet. Maybe I should, and I’m sure we’d all benefit from reviewing how we monitor our online behavior, especially with all the new privacy guidelines coming out. But my point is really that Target simply used the information it already had, in a very very cunning way. What creeps people out is that it feels a bit shocking when a company knows more about you than you told them on purpose.
I guess I may be more immune to the fear that many consumers feel about this scenario, as I’ve worked closely with both retail and packaged goods companies that need to figure out how to use their data to plan smarter products, promotions and pricing strategies. But if this turned into companies linking their data- companies sharing information about different parts of your life- I’d start to get very concerned. I don’t want Jenny Craig sending me coupons just because I started buying a bigger size at H&M!