How Companies Learn Your Secrets

Description: Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that? ”


Date: Feb 6, 2012


The desire to collect information on customers is not new for Target or any other large retailer, of course. For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”

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.    READ REST OF STORY

 Questions for discussion:

1. Reflecting on this article, does ther ever come a time when you feel there is too much data out in the public sphere about you?  Why or Why not?

2.  What are some applications of this BIG DATA technology that you would find exciting as a manager of a business?


24 thoughts on “How Companies Learn Your Secrets

  1. Sheri Durina

    It seems that almost everywhere you shop the store is asking for your phone number, address, email address, just postal code, or all of the above. It can be seen why companies want this information; however, it seems that perhaps it is excessive. Some people like to determine what they buy, where they buy it from, and when they buy it. Perhaps they do not need to be constantly reminded to shop here or there. The amount of personal information that is out in the public sphere is also somewhat worrisome. Whose hands is it in? Perhaps it is a safety and security issue for a company to know where you live, that you may live alone, or that you may be experiencing a certain health issue or life event. Even though a company may not be violating any laws or regulations, is appropriate of them to obtain, store, and utilize every personal detail about a person? Some people may not have any issue with this. It can be seen though that people are much more open with their information and personal details then in the past. As seen in the Target example, when it is apparent that a company has made great efforts to find out very personal information about a person, it is not appreciated.

  2. James Perry

    There is always that perinoia some might have about the data collected of onself but all in all it isnt anything that you havent given out at one point in time willingly. There definately is a level in which this data should be used and dispersed, and with this being said some companies have taken it too far. Target for example I believe has taken it too far. The woman in the article was pregnant and Target found out before her own father. There is a right was to implement such marketing strategies into ones business, but an ethical way of doing so should be in mind. Surely Target didnt know of their finding out of the womans pregnancy was before her fathers and im sure that was not their intent. But this just shows how some companies can pry too far. There needs to be an ethical divide in ones information and the accessability of it. Big Data is a great technology and will help businesses today move forward to better assist their customers and enhance relations. It allows them to monitor spending habbits which is beneficial for both parties. Like i mentioned earlier their just needs to be a healthy and ethical divide in doing such.

  3. Matt Gough

    As a manager, this type of technology would be very beneficial. it will help you guide your business practises towards a specific customer rather then sending out a large amount of spam. These opportunities could potentially help you save money and make more money by sending the right kind of ads to the right person that would be interested in the product. After reading this article, it does make me think that there is to much information out there about each of us. you just hope that the business you are purchasing from is taking the necessary steps in order to keep your personal information protected from cyber criminals and people who want to spam your email account. From a personal perspective, it makes me nervous but it seems like you aren’t able to purchase anything no a days without disclosing something about you. this is what shopping and purchasing is coming to in order for retail stores to gain a form of advantage or competitive edge. There is a lot of competition out there for different things and If they can show you that what you need is what they have then you are far more likely to make their store your first stop because you know its there.

  4. Oyinkan Bakinson

    I feel there is already too much information out there. From credit card information to shops that ask for your address and email to friends tagging me in pictures with the location activated. Nowadays before you can sign up on many websites they ask for a lot of information that may seem trivial but to the right person a goldmine such as in the case of target. I’m sure with the right tools and enough time, one could build an identity from information available online. The internet is a plethora of information both private and personal. You can find almost anything about everyone and anyone. It actually is a little bit scary.
    As a manager I see unlimited opportunities with this technology. From deciding the most effective way to arrange a store, to sending out the flyers and coupons as in the case of Target, to even changing a customer’s shopping preferences. Big Data has and will continue to revolutionize the way managers think and the way retail works.
    To anyone that is after a profit, this is a viable option with “few ethical quandaries” as they are “helping” customers get what they want. To those whose information is being used, this is huge invasion of privacy.

  5. Lindsey

    I absolutely feel there is too much data out there in the public sphere on me, and I frequently try to fly under the radar or disrupt the system as much as possible. Personally, if I were a couple months pregnant and started to receive coupons from Target, I would be pretty upset. I don’t think that is a company’s job to force a relationship with a customer, and that’s what I see this data-analysis predictive patterns departments as. If I want to start a relationship with a company, it will be due to the prices and service it offers me when I choose to engage with it. I do not want to be approached at my home by a company – that feels far too predatory. As evidenced in the article, it’s also a way for information you don’t want disclosed to be exposed: that poor pregnant teenaged girl, outed by Target? That seems like a gigantic violation of privacy and of the customer’s trust they place with a company when they make a purchase, and I’d be concerned about lawsuits coming my way if I were Target.

  6. Janelle M

    I think researching buyer habits and preferences is a great tool. However, I feel there is a fine line in being helpful versus being manipulative. Target’s techniques are extremely invasive. The case in which Target had an understanding of the daughter’s pregnancy before her father did is a perfect example of this. It’s outrageous that this kind of information can be predicted at such a rapid speed with so little effort. And using this information to offer deals and coupons is one thing. But this information is being used to manipulate our buying habits. And that is just what we know. The minute corporations begin tracking personal information to manipulate their customers, I feel it has gone too far. I understand marketing, in all contexts, essentially does this. But with this much data and information being collected on all individuals, is there truly any level of privacy left? Especially when this style of data collection can manipulate our actions, including how we vote? I can completely understand why this Big Data technology would be appealing to any manager/ owner. There are huge benefits to having this kind of information available. I’m just not convinced the information is being used for the benefit of anyone other than those making the profit.

  7. Alexi Kubeczek

    1. Reflecting on this article, does ther ever come a time when you feel there is too much data out in the public sphere about you? Why or Why not?
    Up to a certain point, yes. If a company wants to know how far away from work you live or if you have kids, married and basic factors like those, I see no problem with that. In some cases, the companies might like to have that information so that they can evaluate how lenient they can be towards you. If you’ve come in to work late numerous times and try to say you had to take care of your baby even though you are single with no kin of your own, they deserve to know that you’re just lazy. Or, you play the SIMS too much. OR, you should be in a mental institute and are unfit for work. As far as your interests and whether you buy 2% or skim milk, that should be of no concern to them. If they ask for information on a casual basis for basic conversation, why not? I love European cars and exotics but hate 90% of Muscle cars. My boss knows that. He’s happy because he has a Porsche 911. But, it doesn’t determine whether or not I should work there or if I qualify as a good employee.

    2. What are some applications of this BIG DATA technology that you would find exciting as a manager of a business?
    I would find it exciting as a manager in it’s most practical form. Let’s say there’s a customer that comes in who speaks very little English or French or Spanish, but I have a staff member on site who can communicate with them in German, I can ask for their help and that makes the customer happy as well as me happy because I don’t have to play pictionnary with a customer all because they want bread. Though, pictionnary is fun. There are certain parts of this application which could be useful and others that are just unnecessary.

  8. Cody Nielsen

    1) I have mixed emotions about the data collection of individuals and households. I know that much of it is very useful for those looking into markets and those who want to market to certain segments. But where I have problems is those seeking this information who do no good with it, and too much information doesn’t always help the consumer. I get nervous about the security of individials because of the sicko’s in the world today. If a company has so much information about you including when and what website you visit, your credit cards, shopping habits, house address, phone numbers, and so on, it only takes a small leak in the system and criminals now have a lovely buffet of options to target you with. I also find that while marketing to certain segments is very useful, such as facebook ads or google ad-words, it seems odd to me that I will see the ads of the products I’ve looked at recently. Ads are there to create value in something you may not have known about, but with so much marketing being specific to who we think it needs to be shown to, we may be missing out on things we would otherwise want. I looked on the internet for memory upgrades for my computer, which I then bought about 2 days later at future shop, but to this day, I know it’s because of cookies, I still get ads specifically targeting me about memory upgrades.
    2) The exciting thing about being a manager and receiving all this information is that you would make more money obviously. If you don’t waste time and money by showing an ad to a group who has no interest at all, then you are being efficient and wise with money. It would be nice to know exactly who wants this new product and be able to get it on every communication channel they view. But I would be worried about privacy leaks and infringement to a degree.

  9. Andrew Garlock

    I personally don’t mind people having information about me. I imagine that I don’t want some embarrassing things that I’ve clicked on online to get out (like the infamous two girls one cup video), but all in all, I think that since everyone else has their information out there in the public, I can’t imagine myself worrying about my own online persona being any more damning than anyone else’s. I try to keep my own activity online reigned in as much as possible, and I think I am more aware than the average person of whatever I do and look at online, it is being recorded and someone will know that about me in the future.

    It’s just something that we are going to have to live with for a while. There are people who are working to help us, they’re building armour for us to put on our web browsers, and they are helping us evade the snooping of everything, but at the end of the day, I imagine that I’ve given out every bit of data I can give at some point or another, including my SIN number to the government, etc. If someone wanted it, they could probably have it without too much trouble. At the end of the day, as more people get upset about it, there will be entrepreneurial companies who will suit you up with absolute protection, and even then they will fail. Like I said before, I’m not too worried about it.

    As for wanting this information as an executive of a company, yes, I do believe I would want ALL of it, and use it to sell you all the things you didn’t know you wanted. At the end of the day, really, we’re just saving you time by bringing you what you want right to your browser. Often I get annoyed when the targeted ads on youtube videos are doing a poor job. Seriously? You’re showing me baby commercials? If I’m going to be spied on, at least show me what I want to see.

  10. Jordan Gibson

    1. Reflecting on this article, does there ever come a time when you feel there is too much data out in the public sphere about you? Why or Why not?
    Oh for sure, I think about this on a daily basis actually. Especially with social media you must be careful what you are putting out there for people to see. Recently, I have actually taken the time to delete and remove a lot of information on my Facebook and Twitter pages because we are now seeing companies such as Target using this personal information that you willingly provide for them to advertise and send out promotions. It’s acutally really annoying and disturbing that they would do such a thing. Its pretty much a form of stalking in my mind, however if I was them I don’t know if I wouldn’t do the same. I understand the more information you have the more of an advantage you ultimately have on that person, but at some point, enough is enough.
    2. What are some applications of this BIG DATA technology that you would find exciting as a manager of a business?
    Everything is appealing about it to me. To have the ability to literally track customers and their buying patterns is such a tremendous tool. This benefit any business in terms of sales because you would know what is selling, what isn’t and when customers are going to run out of their current stock at home so the product can be immediately replaced on the shelf. To me, if you’re a manager how can you not be excited by this technology? How can you not have this instituted into your stores? If managers don’t decide to collaborate this into their corporations, I think they would be foolish and at the same time be missing a great opportunity to sell more products.

  11. shaunagregus

    Using BIG DATA as a manager would be extremely exciting. The ability to track people’s habits is just another example of how technology is advancing and we are so willing to move forward with it. Yes, it is a little weird that they can predict if you’re pregnant, but at the same time they’re not obtaining any information that you yourself have not provided. If they were snooping through mail or spying that would be different. However merely collecting data that comes through the store does not seem a trivial matter at all: it is a highly informed business decision. It is proven that these type of prediction systems can bring in huge amounts of revenue, so of course a manager would be inclined to incorporate it into their business.
    Another way to look at it is to see that the company is merely trying to help you out. Yes, their goal is to obtain your patronage and earn money. But in order to do that they cut you a break with coupons and deals on things that you may possibly be needing anyways. It’s a win-win situation; the company gains a regular customer and the customer gets to save a few bucks here and there. The world we live in is all about “making it” and setting out to be the best at what you do. Using stats to predict people’s shopping habits and therefore their lifestyle is just another example of how companies can use available information to turn a profit. As this system is law abiding, I see no reason why a manager wouldn’t jump at the chance to use it.

  12. Edward Agyapong

    Yes, there is a simple adage that goes like too much of everything is bad. Well in this case too much data about people managed by one big community known as “Technology” is quite scary. Yes there are the advantages but the few disadvantages seems to be quite severe and very unpleasant in the wrong hands. As much us we want our privacy, todays’ modernization will not allow us that but it shouldn’t risk our lives too that much. Having your valuable information on the public display and availability is one of the scariest things in life. I think if someone wants or needs information about you, he or she should rather come seek your permission for it rather than paying other people and organizations for information gather on you without your knowledge.
    In the shoes of a manager, the big data technology is an interesting thing to medel with. Why, because in our todays’ world almost everything done by managers from financial reports, level of profitability of a firm, marketing strategies, even what goods and services to render depends mainly on this big data technology. Companies will pay any amount to get this data and will use it in all manner of ways to achieve a specified goal. My main interest if in a managers’ position will be to use the big data technology to acquire data on how and what to offer my customers in terms of goods and services. Having this much access to this much data will go a long way to improve almost everything done in a firm in conjunction with customers. Take P&G’s case as an example, knowing exactly what habits their customers always partook in aided in a very successful sales of their product.

  13. Greg Goodwin

    There has never really become a time when I thought that there was too much data out in the public sphere about me, no. Honestly, these large corporations that collect information that may or may not be valuable to them aren’t going to stalk my home and take my first born, they want to make a sale or provide a service -The ultimate goal of business. Not only is this an advantage for them, but they also tailor their inventory to what is best for us. It’s a win-win. Of course there are things that they don’t need to know, like credit card information for instance, but even then, I think it is harmless.
    These Big Data applications are a fantastic and wonderful resource if they are used efficiently. Business managers should find the fact that they can monitor customers shopping habits in a way that is beneficial for both the business and the consumer. These types of applications allow businesses to adjust to customer needs and remain – or become – more useful to the general public. If this is done successfully, the business makes more money.
    We live in a world where nothing is for free. The price we pay for increased convenience and decreased cost? Privacy. That’s just how it is.

  14. Ida Draper

    With articles like this it does make me feel like there is too much information about each and every person available in the public sphere. I am personally willing to disclose some information to organizations like Shoppers Voice on my shopping trends in order to receive more accurate coupons to my needs but I am fully aware of this happening. It is when companies gather information without me being completely aware of it that it does make me feel uncomfortable. Most of the shopping centres now have a membership card program that allows the shopper to gain in store discounts, the card is there to make it seem like the shopper is the one benefiting but after reading this article it makes me think that all those cards are just so the major retail stores are just looking for information on your shopping trends. I know the pet store does this but I have never really thought over why they keep track of what you own and why I only ever get coupons for related items to what I own. The technology and the science behind as to what is going on with the information that can be gathered from tracking consumer shopping trends is amazing but I feel like it can be rather invasive to our privacy even if the major retail locations are no breaking any privacy laws.

  15. Nicole Freeman

    Well! This article was highly disturbing! I do not enjoy feeling like a lab rat! Target is taking information and using it in a truly creative way that I find completely intrusive. I understand they are not breaking any laws but is it ethical to use people’s personal information in this manner? I suppose if you are pregnant and on the receiving end of helpful coupons, you are not going to question saving $5 on diapers…you will simply be happy to be saving but the ploy is to get you into the store and make your buying diapers at Target a habit. They want to help customers create a cue, routine, reward loop that just so happens will bring huge profits in to their store. As a consumer I am mortified I am being analysed in this way…as the manager of a store, I can see the power of profit maximization. It depends how you look at the situation. Is it harmless to spy on a person’s shopping habits in order to take advantage of their patterns? It feels unethical to treat customers as rats, recording their every purchase in every location to nudge them with just the right coupon at exactly the right time because as the lab technician you know when you open the door, that customer will head directly to the chocolate. In effect, the analysts are rewiring a customer’s brain by implementing a habit loop.

  16. prashant malik

    I hate the fact that there is a lot of information about me in the market . Everyday I get emails like “complete a survey and win a prize or companies with which I never had contact , advertise their products to me . The first question that arises in my mind is that , how did various marketers got my information . I am shocked because from my name to what I do , my likes and dislikes ,etc. they know everything. I have started to worry about just how much information stores have and what they are really using it for. Also, I do not feel comfortable with the fact that cyberspace contains all of this information about me and it worries me even more since the hacking problem is increasing day by day. The main concern with so much data being available to so many people and businesses is of course security threat . I am ok with the fact that companies have my info if they just use for marketing purposes , but usually we hear about various scams , hacking ,etc. A very famous example can be when PSN accounts were hacked and a lot of credit card numbers were stolen. Nowadays , I am too afraid to give any of my information to the shopkeepers because I don’t know for what purpose are the companies actually asking our info for. Obviously if someone could hack into this big database and steal all these peoples information and possibly their identity than that would be a serious problem for the company as well as for the customers.

  17. Helen Reina

    1. Reflecting on this article, does ther ever come a time when you feel there is too much data out in the public sphere about you? Why or Why not?
    Yes, all the time people is doing something like going for shopping or are online or give their information to a social network companies or institutions are collecting data all the time about them, so they can have a profile of the person to sale things to them or to use that for specific things.
    When people agrees in giving information for any reason can be in the internet or by filling a file to apply for a card in a store they are allowing other people to take advantage or use their information and that is one way people can use this information, because sometimes it can be in a bad way like kidnappings or robbery.

    2. What are some applications of this BIG DATA technology that you would find exciting as a manager of a business?
    As a manager business having this amount of information of all my customers, and also possible people that can spend money in my store or business i will use them first of all, for sending discounts or information of the specific products they might be interested in. I will also let them know about all the promotions and activities the store is doing. it will also help to separate and classify customers so it will be easier to attend them.

  18. Jordan Slemp

    The fact Target, or other companies, can purchase all sorts of information about us is a scary thought. Sure from their stand point this is a huge advancement in marketing technology. This will lead to them gaining larger profit in the long run. But as the consumer whos information is being purchased I feel violated. It makes you second guess the things you do. Maybe from now on I will start making purchases in cach inorder to stop the paper trail.
    As a manager I would find a lot of this information very useful. Its information that allows you to speak to inviduals more directly. Instead of sending ads that the individual will not look at twice you can send them an ad you know will interest them. This allows the money you spend on advertising to be spent much more effeciently.

  19. Haley

    Now a days it seems that no matter where you shop you are always giving up your personal information to receive promotions, coupons, exclusive deals etc who would have thought companies could use that information to forecast when a pregnant women will be shopping for diapers and when she will be due. This article fascinated me, if companies are smart enough to come up with these models and to make it increase there profits by 20 million dollars than I would say good for you. Yeah they may be collecting a little more data than a lot of people would like them too but at the same time as long as they are not doing anything illegal, and all they are doing with that information is sending you coupons to help you save money than I don’t see the big deal. Obviously if someone could hack into this big database and steal all these peoples information and possibly their identity than that would be a serious problem but until then I find this absolutely brilliant!

  20. Tayler Orban

    Presently, I feel that there is way too much data out in the public sphere and it is only going to get worse. Every store I shop in now asks for my email when I make a purchase and they send generic but also specific emails to target me as a customer. This has started to make me wonder just how much information stores have and what they are really using it for. I do not feel comfortable with the fact that cyberspace contains all of this information about me and it worries me even more since the hacking epidemic that seems to be increasing as the days go by. When I shop online I only give them the most basic information I can but I have noticed that the starred fields for information that is necessary in order to make the purchase is beginning to be more and more demanding. This worries me because there is no way around it except for eliminating online purchases and they are so much more convenient. Online shopping also offers a vast selection of goods available for purchase which intrigues consumers and enables these sites to get this information and use it for their own personal gain.

  21. Jessi Chrapko

    It definitely feels like there is too much data out there about me, some willingly given, some collected discretely. Articles such as these make you realize how much information about you is really being collected. I would have never guessed that a company like Target would have such an extensive system tailoring to pregnant women and other consumer groups. The main concern with so much data being available to so many people and businesses is of course security threats. You don’t ever know how good a company’s database security really is, and there is always the threat of hackers or people within the companies themselves misusing personal information.

    From a manager’s perspective, access to this type of information would obviously be great for making greater profits and seen in the case of Target and with P&G when they revamped the Frebreeze ads. Your customers would also likely have higher satisfaction with their purchases and your business because you are tapping into their mindsets, habits and specific needs/wants.

  22. Lanre Paulissen

    It’s a known fact that corporations are out to make a profit and what better way can they reach that objective if not by getting clients to spend. Target targets expectant mothers and sends them relevant advertisements on what these mothers would need either now or in the nearest future.

    As per the question “does there ever come a time when you feel there is too much data out in the public sphere about you?” The truth is that the time is here already! There is already too much information about me in lots of databases that I would probably never know about. Some of these are due to me providing information to register on various systems and others are due to anonymous data being collected about me due to my everyday activities. In today’s cashless society, having a debit card or credit card is relatively more convenient than carrying cash. And with every swipe of those cards, tons of data are collected discreetly.

    The subtle core of the article is actually the use of BIG DATA technology and how it is being used to enhance the financial prospects of profit-making organizations. Tons of data are collected everyday but the point of interest is how these data are analysed to yield quite accurate results, which enables business managers exploit market opportunities and make a profit or even turn around the fortunes of a failing product. A good example is the case of P & G turning failing product (the Febreze) into one of its biggest sellers. As business manager, having a business tool that allows me drill into tons of data and be able to come up with a positive turn-around would be both priceless and God-sent.

  23. mark schmitz

    I definitely hate the fact that there is a bunch of my information on various databases out there. From a marketing standpoint I don’t much care but from a security standpoint it makes me a little uneasy. I recently got a letter in the mail from Revenue Canada’s Human Resources department. The letter stated that they had lost a hard drive containing MY information. It had my name, address, SIN number, etc…. Mismanagement of information is a big problem. People don’t care to manage your information the way you would. I wish there was a service that could erase personal information from the entire system.
    From a business/managers standpoint, having a ton of information would be priceless. I think its application toward CRM could be harnessed in a way that would create a great marriage between businesses and consumers, aside from its obvious use- matching people with specific products tailored to their lifestyle.

  24. Justeen Kolody

    According to Target in this article there can never be too much public information on you, but I think there is. As mentioned in the article Target knows basically all your demographics, age, sex, marital status, pregnancy. At what point would it be too much, even with them abiding all laws it still makes me feel uneasy that if I was to shop there I would just be another guest number that they could take up information of what I purchased and with what card. A worry that I have is what kind of database are they storing all this personal information in; will hackers be able to break in and retrieve all this personal information? Or will they have a similar situation to what TJX had gone through with the massive loss of credit card numbers. Will they sell off this data if it considered public? There is too many worries when it comes to storing this amount of personal information, and with out consumers knowing is a big issue. I’m sure most people that shop at Target will feel like Big Brother is watching them at all times, now that they have disguised their ads they may not have as many questionable shoppers.


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