An article from Forbes on the power of data collection and pattern recognition software – quoted from a larger NY Times article on how companies use information on customers. For example, Target can generally tell when a regular customer is pregnant just by looking at shopping patterns. The patterns aren’t all obvious stuff like diapers or baby-registry stuff – other things like hand lotion and other items frequently used at certain points in pregnancy can tip them off with a high-degree of accuracy. Target then use that information to use tailored ads and coupons to those customers:
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, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.
“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 didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.
On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “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.”
Since the incident, and others like it, Target has shifted to a more coy strategy – they still tailor their ads, but put in random items they know the customer isn’t interested in to mask the tailoring.
So basically, if you shop at a major outlet, you should probably bank on them doing creepy Orwellian analysis on the data they get from your habits.