Don’t be alarmed when you start receiving coupons in the mail for products you’re not even aware you need yet. Recent consumer research led by huge retail stores such as Target shows that companies are now able to analyze the routines and habits of their shoppers to fully exploit their needs and wants. This means companies can paste together your demographic information, purchasing history and frequently-visited websites to predict what type of individual you are and what products you may be interested in buying in the future. Whether you are an obsessive beachgoer purchasing new bikinis in April or a soon-to-be mom, Target is able to analyze your regular shopping routine to create customized, individual ad booklets that will be personally mailed to your address. Not only is this new method of customer service alarmingly accurate, but it’s also an invasion of privacy and a breach of personal liberty.
According to a Feb. 19 New York Times article, Andrew Pole, who has a master’s degree in statistics and economics, was hired by Target in 2002 to “analyze all ‘cue-routine-reward’ loops among shoppers and figure out how to exploit them.” In other words, Pole was hired to observe consumers as much as possible so that Target customers would be able to receive personalized coupon booklets in the mail pertaining to their past purchasing history and shopping routines. As helpful as this may initially sound, it’s taking customer service to a whole new level and opening doors which many consumers believe lead down a dangerous path. Pole is able to strategically pick out the pool goers and beach bums from the giant Target database so that they receive coupons for dieting books in the winter and sunscreen in the summer. But his insight into consumers’ habits is much more powerful and personal than that alone.
Since hiring Pole in 2002, Target’s total revenue has increased by more than $23 billion as of 2010, thanks to his strategic habit analysis. But the majority of this increase in profits is due to Pole’s pregnancy-prediction program, which is a score customers receive based on their purchasing history of 25 separate products, ranging from cotton balls to unscented body lotion. No longer is Target simply stereotyping mothers based on whether they purchase diapers or pacifiers; they are now digging deeper into their personal lives than ever before. Surprisingly, the prediction score turns out to be extremely accurate.
A year after Pole’s model was created, an angry father stormed into a Minneapolis Target raging about why his daughter, who was still in high school, received Target coupons for maternity clothes and baby products in the mail. The furious dad complained to the manager and asked why Target was sending an encouraging message to teenage girls to become pregnant and have a baby at such a young age. It turned out that after speaking with his daughter later on, she was indeed pregnant. By analyzing her shopping habits and routine, Target was able to identify a young expecting mother before her own father was even aware of the situation. This new means of customer service is invasive and much too personal. Predicting a teenage boy’s love of video games is one thing, but analyzing a shopper’s routine to decide if he or she is pregnant, a recent divorcée or a new college graduate is a completely different matter.
This intrusive method of increasing sales is only the beginning of a long road that lies ahead. “Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them,” Pole told The New York Times. In reality, do customers actually feel completely comfortable with huge corporations knowing their personal business and digging up their past history? My gut feeling suggests no. Even after applying the pregnancy-prediction model to just a small fraction of the Target database, customers who received coupon booklets with only baby products and maternity clothing felt as though they’d been spied on, and they had adverse reactions to the advertisements.
Last time I checked, Target wasn’t codename for Big Brother, so why does the corporation obsessively analyze and push into customers’ personal lives? No one wants to feel like they’re being spied on while casually trying to run a few errands. Not only is this an invasion of our personal privacy as shoppers, but it also opens up a door to a scary future. In that future, huge corporations and retailers have complete access to our personal information and background. Yes, companies should work to achieve the best customer service possible, but taking it this far is a breach of individual liberty and our independence.
Sarah Skaluba is an LSA sophomore.