Undercover Marketing


“If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?”

This was the question posted to Target statistician Andrew Pole, as recounted in the New York Times article “How companies learn your secrets”.  New parents have always been a boon for “one-stop” retailers like Target, as this life-change offers a small opportunity to alter engrained buying habits.  “Coming in for diapers?  Might as well pick up some supper too.”  The competition for new parents’ attention is so fierce that Target wanted to get a jump on their competition and begin their marketing efforts before baby was even born.

And Pole delivered.  He analyzed women’s purchase history and identified 25 products (pre-natal vitamins, maternity wear, etc.)  that when considered together, generated a “pregnancy prediction score”.   This allowed him to estimate who was a mommy-to-be, and approximately when she was due.  Target then created custom “mommy-themed” flyers and coupons, disguised as regular flyers, and sent them specifically to these women, who were unaware of their data-gleaned origins.

And Target is not the only retailer doing this.  As the article explains, “Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them.”

Does this story give you pause?  Or does the prospect of a tailored-deal excite you?  Either way, just wait.  Those predictive analytics departments are about to get a whole lot more in-your-face thanks to mobile wallets.

The internet has been awash with talk of mobile wallets.  (For the uninitiated, Jen’s post ‘The Next Step’ provides a great introduction).  People are quick to talk about their convenience, the “coolness” of the technology, their lighter pockets.  But less often do they mention the real reason for their existence; marketing.

A few weeks ago, I read an article that explained how RBC is poised to be the first Canadian bank to offer mobile wallets, possibly as a soon as October.  Interestingly, this article also spoke at great length of the marketing advantages of the technology.

Retailers will now be able to collect purchase-data more easily than ever before, tailoring promotions to specific consumers.  Combine this with your smartphone’s location-aware technology and retailers can now text you their latest flyer when you are near their store.  Or alert you of their lunch special.

There are obvious advantages for both merchants and consumers alike, and it might be nice to walk into your favourite store and be provided with a list of on-sale items, or a coupon.  We won’t know how this latest evolution of analytics will play out, but one thing’s for sure – we’ll all be watching.  Oh, and so will they.

Do you think predictive analytics improve the retailer/customer dynamic?  Or, are they an invasion of privacy?

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Posted on July 31, 2012, in Consumer Psychology Files, State of the Industry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I get freaked out by the idea that Google is able to tailor their ads to my searches. The thought of my bank working with retailers to do the same thing is actually kind of scary. It’s not like I’m making any purchases that would raise national security flags or would be overly embarrassing, but shouldn’t we all have some measure of privacy in our lives?

  2. Avoid becoming a statistic and protect your privacy at the same time. How? Deal only in cash, and leave your phone at home. It’s one way to own without being owned.

  3. That might help Jeff, but I think in general privacy is just an illusion in our society…unless you don’t have a bank account, escape detection of surveillance cameras, and live in the woods..someone will be able to find out what you’re doing. Tinfoil hat anyone? 😛

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