Can Companies Learn Your Secrets

Description:  “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 16, 2012


As the marketers explained to Pole — and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop — new parents are a retailer’s holy grail. Most shoppers don’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target — cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six-month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company’s primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change themREAD REST OF STORY 

 Questions for discussion:

  1.  Are there any ethical dilemmas to using big data in consumer services?
  2. What other commercial applications can you see for organizations in using big data?
  3. What skill would you need to be able to use Big Data in an organization that you work for?

60 thoughts on “Can Companies Learn Your Secrets

  1. Shayla Mysek

    I feel that Target chose a strategy that could potentially be risky for themselves and for their customers. The short term gain does not make up for the potential long term problems Target could be creating. It is technically legal but by no means is it ethical. Target needs to look into the risk they may be taking and be ready to face the consequences, those being the potential loss of their customers which could lead to the loss of the franchise all together. From Target’s standpoint, I’m sure they believe that it is a smart move because they can better target and market their products to their customers, thus enhancing sales. Just because this system may work for them, does not mean they should use it. Many companies, I’m sure are adopting this way of marketing as it is in fact quite effective. I see all the time when i browse the internet, countless ads popping up for sites I have previously visited or ones similar to those. The fact is, we as consumers are giving up too much for so little gain, and most of us don’t even know it is happening. At this point, it may even be too late, because with every click you do on the internet, your information is going somewhere and being stored. What it is being used for, or the fact that it is even being used at all is the problem.

  2. Jacie

    The ethical dilemmas are numerous in the case of using big data in consumer services. I couldn’t imagine a store like Target knowing I was pregnant before I told certain people in my family or even my friends. It is a huge invasion of privacy and the whole idea of this type of marketing tactic is just wrong. Spying on people and collecting so much of their personal information just to take a shot at making a few hundred bucks off of them is just awful. These huge companies take their consumers for granted, gaining off of their privacy, so often without the consumers even knowing it. I especially see this type of mistreatment in the form of older people, but it does get to everyone no matter what their age or gender.

    Commercially, big data can be used to the advantage of organizations in just about every way imaginable. It starts with coupons and special offers, but it can move on to targeting people based on their music preference for concerts and CDs, movie preferences for DVDs, and so on. As long as a company has a smart, talented and hard-working individual in charge of organizing the big data in such a way that they can use it to market to certain individuals, the company has it made in terms of getting people to buy things without them even knowing they are being targeted.

    In order to use big data in an organization, you would need the major skill of organizing data in such a way that it becomes useful to the organization. Once you have this down, you would need to think of ways to present the findings to your consumers in a such a way that they don’t suspect they are being mistreated or having their privacy invaded. On top of that, you would need to be aware of the legal and ethical consequences depending on how you use the data.

  3. Robbie Rutkowski

    The idea of big companies allowing information of their customers to be released to other companies is an interesting topic. You always wonder why is this store interested in my postal code but really you don’t think about it till later if you think about it at all. The target market of all big companies may range however the chance of having a competitor is highly likely. When we do give out our information to these stores we are hoping that they keep it private however it rarely happens that this information is only available for that one source. All businesses have to attract current customers to come back and new customers to come in. This information allows these companies to more address their target market and more see what products their targets are actually purchasing when coming to the store. This distribution should not be allowed but however with the changing technology and the advancement there is very little we can do.

  4. Brady Hoffart

    When companies trade personal information we all lose. All of a sudden personal information is given to the discretion of people who just want to put more advertisements in our lives. Where are these ads? On almost every website, on TV, billboards, newspapers, radio, etc. These annoying ads gain more exposure knowing things like where we live and what we do online, because of the placement of those ads. Not only is privacy lost at the expense of these companies personal gain, but also the ability for this data to be taken from these companies increases. Just from the increased spread of data there is a much higher likelihood that someone could find a way into one of many different systems that has your personal information in it.
    So therefore, what is the better? Is it better to maintain a customer’s privacy? Or is it ok to instead give that up to market your product to them? It is obvious that there is a dilemma and marketing to people based off their personal information is simply unethical. It may be unavoidable perhaps but it is also unethical.
    Information brokers must constantly be at the center of this dilemma. Although I suppose on a day to day basis, you would probably not care as to what a company does with this data. Still selling said data would have to be a dilemma. You would have a means to make some revenue and yet again at the expense of people’s privacy. It seems like a shady business.

  5. Michelle McCaffrey

    Consumer services uses big data to market to customers that are their target market and try and get these customers to shop at their stores. Target uses a statistician to collect as much information as they can on their customers that shop at their stores. They didn’t like how their customer shopped at several different stores when they could get all the products they want at their Target stores. So they started collecting data on what their customer buy, when they open an email from their store or fill it out an online survey they created guest id’s which links all the information. I think how much they know about a customer is a little bit concerning, how they know when they are expecting or have a baby they can market their items towards these customers. I think it concerns a lot of people who know this is happening because they aren’t sure where this information is going. It’s also hard to stop companies from collecting this information because a lot of people don’t know its happening. I think in the long-term companies maybe able to use this information in a bad way and start stealing customer’s private information. I think organization is a huge component to big data and the company needs to know how to organize all the information they gather appropriately so they can make use of it. They need a system to that can tell the statisticians what these people are buying at the moment and what should they be marketing to these customers.

  6. Minju Lee

    Of course big corporations such as Target complies with legal requirement to avoid invasion of privacy act. However, that does not mean they are totally free from ethical issue. In this case, Target selectively chooses their customers to promote their store, and it succeeded (immense increase in sales proves that). But isn’t there risk factor that analyzed information could be misused? For example, Target gathers public information and analyzes them in their own method, new and more detailed information is created by Target then. Could an individual Private Corporation keep the information safely? Or what if they trade the analyzed information to other party and generate revenue from there? Or could the analyzed information be used in criminal purpose? Or is this really fair to other competitors on the free market system? Numerous ethical issues appear once I take one-step further consideration. If it brings customers more convenient way of shopping and good deals, customers would be satisfied and complain nothing. But I do not think they can satisfy literally all customers. Some people value their more privacy than few extra dollar discount coupon. As well as, it is hard to be justified when their main purpose of using big data is to promote more sales. Company can save quite bucks from hiring expensive statistical mathematicians, analyzing bid date and printing coupons, and simply reduce the amount on price tags on their shelves too. For me nagging from my mom is enough, and hopefully my life is not interfered by big mercenary coporations.

  7. Christian Blott

    I see the future of data collection being focused on the collection qualitative data. What I mean by this is that demographic information will become extremely simple to retrieve. Therefore, marketing departments will become more concerned with gathering pictures of you to truly track your emotions. Organizations are developing technology to scan through millions of pictures to find very specific elements in the photo or video. An example of this would be Starbucks scanning instagram pictures to find a Starbucks cups. It would not be because the photo was hash tagged Starbucks but because the software could scan the details of the actual image. This will create a new wave of data collection and usage because marketers will be able to track people’s images and the emotion they have in those pictures. For example, the software might detect how wide your smile is, or how the dilation of your pupils. This can be correlated to products in the picture or video of you and can be effectively marketed to you. This is major advance because it is moving marketers that much closer to be able to get consistent and specific information on your thinking patterns and behaviour. When firms can track your emotional response to a specific product in quantitative manner it will shift marketing from traditional demographic and browsing information to psychological approach. Knowing the exact emotion of how you will react to a product will assist marketers in creating more targeted promotions.

  8. Taryn Gackle

    Are there any ethical dilemmas to using big data in consumer services?

    I believe there are definitely ethical dilemmas linked to using big data in consumer services. As a customer I feel extremely violated thinking about how much information can be gathered about me or even bought. Many other customers probably also feel as if they are being spied on or having their rights violated. Where has privacy gone? I understand the use of data like this for companies. Like discussed in the article it can be extremely valuable to know your customers habits and such. It can increase sales and attract new customers as well if you are able to reach them with their interests. However valuable this information is, I believe it is ethically wrong to be able to sell or purchase this information without individuals being aware of this occurring.

    What other commercial applications can you see for organizations in using big data?

    I believe this data could provide many uses to organizations, its the way they use it that matters. Right now Target identifies their consumers for their own good, to sell more products and convert more people to their stores. If this data could be used in a way kind of like Netflix uses it for stores such as Target it could benefit the company and the consumers. Netflix uses data on their consumers to recommend movies and shows for them, providing a better experience. If stores could use their data to recommend products, provide discounts or coupons to the right demographic of even change products to consumers desires there could be a huge positive impact. Consumers may feel less violated if they were benefited in some way from their personal information being gathered. However, it could still cause an ethical dilemma for the simple fact that consent was never given.

    What skill would you need to be able to use Big Data in an organization that you work for?

    I feel like the use of Big Data in my field when I’m done my studies would be extremely wrong. In the accounting field I would not want to be involved in collecting and selling personal information on my clients. It would most likely be conceived as a breach of customer confidence and could result in a poor performance review.


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