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Target is spying on you…

Target is spying on you…

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And more power to them. I happened upon this New York Times article over the weekend: How Companies Learn Your Secrets. The gist (it’s about 7,000 words, but it’s a quick read) is that Target hires statisticians to increase revenue.

Target, like many other corporations, wants to get repeat business. Most of us are set in our buying ways — we usually shop at the same places until some life-changing event happens. Those life-changing events include moving, marrying, divorcing, graduating and, of course, the holy grail of life-changing events: having a baby.

As most parents will tell you, having a baby changes everything (as it should). New parents must wrestle with sleep deprivation, continuous family illnesses, financial changes (sometimes including converting to one-income family for a short time, if not longer) and figuring out how to best care for their new bundle of joy.

New parents and parents-to-be are more open to changing their retail routines, as they try to fit their new purchasing requirements (baby food, formula, pacifiers, diapers and everything else) into their old shopping habits.

For example, Target hopes that new parents will stop shopping for food at grocery stores and convert to Target, which has a grocery section and baby products section. The theory is that they can predict which of their customers are pregnant based on purchasing habits.


By far, the best part of the article was the outing of pregnant high schooler. Certainly, it’s not ideal that a high school student is pregnant. But Target, applying its algorithm to purchasers, started sending baby and pregnancy-related coupons to one young girl, whose father was outraged that Target appeared to be encouraging her to become pregnant. The Target manager dutifully apologized on two occasions, but was surprised on the second conversation when the father revealed: “I had a talk with my daughter. It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of.”

Comments to the article and on social networks seem to favor the “THIS IS AN INVASION OF MY PRIVACY” model. I’m no privacy expert, but it seems to me that if you communicate with a store through customer service, fill in their surveys, give them your email address, shop online or use a credit card when purchasing products, it’s logical that they put all of that information into a big basket marked “About You.” And if they can use that information to send you coupons for things you might need (I’ll say it again), more power to them.

On the other hand, if you don’t want them to have any information about you, you’ll pull some money out of your bank account and pay in cash. Problem solved.

I’m not really sure why people are all that surprised about this type of thing. I remember the exact same complaints back when Safeway started the Club Card, I think in the late ’90s, and I’m sure there are examples way before that. Technology is going to get better and better, and retailers will have access to more information about us.

But we still have free will; they are not forcing us to buy their products. And, frankly, they don’t care about any of us as people. No one is looking through the spreadsheets saying, “Huh. Mrs. Smith is pregnant.”

So, in case I haven’t made it clear, I don’t mind that companies can use technology to figure this stuff out. But then, in a parallel universe I was probably the guy who said “This Skynet thing is really cool!”

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