Creepy retail practices: Target knows you’re pregnant before you tell anyone else

We all know that companies track out behavior to try to figure out what we want to buy, but wait ’til you learn a little bit about HOW they track you.

The New York Times found a fascinating source, Andrew Pole, a Target statistician who spilled some interesting information before Target made him stop talking to the newspaper.

Back in 2002, Target asked Pole “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?”

The answer to that question is yes, with startling accuracy.

Two compelling reasons why Target wants to figure out which of their customers is pregnant: #1. New parents buy LOTS of stuff, and #2 a big change like expecting a baby is a chance for Target to change your shopping habits. Because they figured out you were pregnant, with some well placed marketing and coupons, they may be able to convince you to start buying things like milk at Target, when you only used to go there when you needed a new blender or bath mat.

We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”

But HOW DO THEY DO THAT?

If you use a credit card at target, or use a coupon, you’ll be assigned a Guest ID number. Here’s what they can find out about you based on your Guest ID tracking:

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.)

This information means nothing, though, without some analysis. Pole started figuring out how to tell a woman is pregnant by analyzing the buying patterns of customers who participated in Target’s baby registry. He picked up that newly pregnant women stocked up on lotions, vitamin supplements, and that they often stop buying scented soap.

Here’s a hypothetical situation that can happen based on this information:

One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August.

This type of accuracy can backfire for Target. They can creep out a women when they send her a catalog full of baby items when no one knows she’s pregnant. They can also “out” a pregnancy to a person’s family. There’s one documented instance when an angry customer called up a Target complaining that they sent a booklet of diaper and baby formula coupons to his teenage daughter. He later called an apologized. She WAS pregnant. And Target knew it first!

Target isn’t the only retailer to do this kind of stuff, they all do, but Target is known to be the smartest around. They even learned from creeping ladies out that once they’re sure a gal’s expecting, they need to pepper in the baby related items with other products, to make it sound like the “targeted” marketing was just by chance.

The author of the Times piece, Charles Duhigg, has a book coming out February 28 about how our habits rule our lives, called The Power of Habit. Analysts in every industry and sector are catching on to how powerful habits are, and trying to collect and analyze data to not only find out how to get more bang from advertising bucks, but how to better treat psychiatric illnesses, how to play better football, how to do just about everything with more power and precision.

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