How Companies Can 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 them.  READ 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?

22 thoughts on “How Companies Can Learn Your Secrets

  1. Jennifer B

    Personally I feel like this is a very sticky situation, on one hand everything they are doing is completely legal, and on the other hand it’s a little frightening how much personal information these large corporations know. If they are simply monitoring my weekly purchases and sending me relevant coupons I wouldn’t mind at all. Even if I’m pregnant and based on my purchases I’m receiving coupons for diapers, and cribs etc. that is fine with me. However, when it becomes much more than that which it has and I’m sure will continue to do is when I think there is a problem. There is a line and there is a point that will be too far, and unfortunately I feel like we will see that line being crossed. At the end of the article when he says something about sending you coupons and planting the seed of a product even before you realize you want it is evidence of that. It is unsettling to find out just how much companies know about you, and that companies can buy that information online which I think is the most unsettling concept about all of this. What if that ends up in the wrong hands, sure target using it to send me coupons for products I need at this specific time in my life is not the worst thing in the world. But how do we know it’s going to stop there. That is what concerns me with all the personal information that is now available for anyone to buy.

  2. Katrin Saballa

    Even though I have nothing against companies using consumer information to know which products they should be putting on their shelves, ethically speaking, there is something wrong with that because it is an invasion of privacy. Some of us don’t want to know that the shops we usually shop at know what is happening with our lives. This information may only be for the companies to use but companies getting hacked is not a new thing so who can actually say that the information they obtain about their customers will stay private?

    I was kind of aware that some customer information are collected as I shop. It is evident when I look at things to buy online. For example, I would be looking for a new refrigerator and suddenly I notice that every site I visit that supports ads would have refrigerator offers on them. After a while, I realized that the browsing I do are recorded and retailers are keeping track of this in order to reach me and offer me a better deal than other retailers.

    I think people who are required to use Big Data in the organization that they work for, needs to be able to understand how the system works. They should be able to think analytically and have the skill to use the information they obtain in a way that would improve the organization. The person should be able to satisfy the organization and the consumers’ needs so that the data obtained can be seen as useful.

  3. Tolu Adepoju

    There are a lot of ways for companies to grab customer information, is it right though?. I believe that yes it is. It creates the right product for customers at the right now and innovation for new ideas. In the case of pregnant woman in the article, she gets sends deals that could save her some money and incentive to come to the store. Target for example sends out product coupon to pregnant lady during her second trimester to get to her first before other competitor. This is done to gain competitive advantage. The world becomes more innovative and paces faster. Who get to the customer first offer the best deals and such? I believe that companies learning customer’s behaviour pattern for economic gain is not unethical. Since it is only used to find out what services to offer customers currently. Companies however I believe however should only use this information for themselves not sell them to other parties that creates opportunity for hackers or scammers. In doing this as well they should inform their customers of what information they are grabbing so it not a huge shock to customers.

  4. Nidhi Patel

    Whether or not using Big Data is ethical or not depends on each person’s perspective. Some people could care less whether or not somebody had personal and private information about them and other people choose to be very private about their lives. In order to increase profits for their own corporation, big businesses like Target choose to gain as much information as they can. As written in the article, Target uses many different sources to gather information, and while many people happily give away their information other people think twice. While gathering data “unintentionally” is okay, big corporations tend to gain data rather an unorthodox way. To increase their profit, they basically are stalking customers. If noticing where and what kind of credit card is used, what time around one shops the most and eventually learning that one is pregnant isn’t creepy, than what is. To my knowledge, this is a form of stalking that really is infringing upon the rights of many individuals and while many don’t care because there getting good deals to shop at, others may think it’s a very eccentric and scary. While it’s understandable that getting certain information about their shoppers is vital to a big corporation to keep its place in the market, it’s also arguable that the way the information is attained is unconventional. It is also reasonable to say that in order for big companies like Target and P&G to stay in business it is extremely important that maintain and attain information about their customers on a daily basis. It helps them to operate and stay in business, and the best part of it all is to gain great profit.

  5. Krysten Lumsden

    Reading this left me intrigued because I thought, WOW, look at the lengths companies are going to increase profits. To me it sounds and feels creepy. Not only that they are collecting and compiling all this data about shoppers’ habits but that they are then trying to conceal the fact that they not only have this information but are using it for profit.

    It is one thing for something to be legal but can be another thing entirely for it be ethical. Personally that this is going on is something I find worrisome. I am concerned that the companies are actively seeking to profile shoppers and also to influence their decisions in this way. I see this more and more as I use the internet these days. I go on Amazon to research toothpaste, for example, and next thing I know every web page after that is offering me toothpaste products that I just researched on Amazon. It’s spooky. Like someone following me around. Or like if I tell a friend some personal information and then next thing you know you have strangers talking to me about that very same thing I considered personal.

    I find it really creepy on one hand that Target could be sending me pregnancy coupons based on fact that some of my purchases might suggest I am pregnant. Pregnancy is a private thing, especially in the early stages. Not that I wouldn’t mind getting relevant coupons, if I were pregnant, but it is just the idea of them sort of snooping around in my personal information and targeting their products at me that feels unsettling.

    It also raises the question of where will this go next. You know they will not stop there. The depth and comprehensiveness of data collected on preferences will only become more detailed and sophisticated. If 40% of what we do is habit based (I think that is what the article said), then that means corporations have the potential to control 40% or more of the routine decisions we make. All those small routine things, are the stuff that makes up who we are.

  6. Ben Lo

    In my opinion there are many ethical dilemmas associated with BIG data in customer services. For one, Target possess information that people do not want to disclose to the public or to private corporations. There can be sensible information customers do want to be in a database somewhere and be accessed by random people they did not trust the information to. Although this information can be argued that it will provide a better quality service to those who decide on going to Target for consumer good, there is an ethical issue behind obtaining information that consumers do not want to share. I think there should be a document that needs to be signed before corporations or other companies that provide a service can take private information. This way consumers will know what type or what kind of information is on company databases. Another ethical dilemmas in consumer serveries, is that companies like Target can profit off selling private information to other companies, corporations, governments, marketing companies, and many more. This information belongs to the owners and corporations and other companies are selling this information without consent of the owners. This should be illegal or regulated so that owners of this information will be compensated for unauthorized selling of private information. In my opinion, a solution to this problem can be resolved by offering discounts or benefits for consumers who authorize companies and corporations the rights to sell or trade their private information. This way both parties will receive a benefit and reduce the ethical dilemmas that may arise.

  7. Kayla Rothe

    In the article it is clearly stated that the data and statistics that Target is using is completely legal; however, many out question if this information that is gathered if ethical. Personally, I believe that in this day of age individuals should be aware, as well as expect that organizations will dig deep to collect the right information, and make the right moves to stay on top and maintain a competitive advantage. As a consumer, it is important to think twice about this while you are purchasing products. By choosing to use customer loyalty cards, and adding your personal information to a database, you are making the choice to share information about yourself. I believe that as technology advances, our personal identity is becoming less and less private, and sadly, I think that is it something that we are learning to simply accept.

  8. Kahn Daviduck

    I personally am not offended by large companies using big data and trying to find out as much information as they can about consumers. I believe in the modern day world where all our information is so easily obtainable whether we want it to be or not is out of our control. If these companies can offer us better services and bring down costs by doing so I would support the use of big data. The ability to see peoples buying habits and what items are trending in a large store is invaluable information in the retail industry. Also so many people’s information is already readily available on public websites like Facebook,Twitter or Instagram making it even easier for our information to be used without our consent.

    Sadly for those who don’t support the use of big data there probably isn’t much we can do about it. I see how older generations may find it very difficult to adapt to this change in how corporations market their products and use our personal information without consent. Obviously all of the large corporations are going to start using it so that they can stay competitive in their respective markets. Hopefully in the future there may be some limitations as to what information can be acquired and used for marketing or research purposes. With all of the recent hacking at large corporations it doesn’t give me much confidence that they will be the only ones who are keeping their clients personal information and using it for their own benefit.

  9. Fangbo He

    Overall, this article talked about how improtant peopele’s private data are, and it is necessary for companies to keep customer’s private data. The companies have their own marketing. Briefly, the marketing is the process by which companies create value for customers and build strong customer relationships in order to capture value from customers in return. Companise need earn the money from customers, also, the customers need profit from companies as well. Sometimes, customers do no want to their personal data to be analyzed. Therefore, learing how to keep customer’s private is vital for companies because it related to a company’s live and die.

  10. Joalee Mann

    Of course there are ethical issues surrounding the use of big data in customer services. Like all research involving human subjects, there are underlining ethical codes that are expected to be followed. Some of which are; a knowledge that data is being collected of the subject and what the researcher’s intent is to do with that data, and of course, to give the researcher permission to do so. I don’t believe companies that use big data in this mannerism- finding women who are pregnant for specified marketing targets – has very respectable intent and their methodology is boarder line immoral as well.
    On the other hand, it definitely does sound appealing to be able to analyse really large amounts of accurate data that is constantly being updated without having to physically collect it; letting computer programs do the boring stuff. On the consumer side of things, I personally do not mind if my shopping habits were being recorded; for example, Chapters/Indigo constantly email me suggestions of what to read based on things I’ve already bought – I don’t have to browse for books or leave my house, and I buy it from them. Win-win.
    The potential applications for big-data in organizations is endless; whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t think anyone knows yet. But for sure, skills like statistical analysis, experienced use of programs like STATA or SPSS will be demanded of the labour force. An understanding of how these data systems is definitely required to an extent in all levels of an organization.

  11. Ajuot

    Gathering and analyzing personal shopping habits to make a prediction about a person in my view is an invasion of personal privacy. As a consumer, I don’t like my shopping to be tracked down. Indeed, it would make me feel uncomfortable if I realize that am being tracked through my shopping trends. In fact, after I read the article, what first came to my mind was to check the coupons that I do receive from different market that I normally shop in. To my surprise, the coupons were almost full of some of the products that I had previously bought. This raises the question that am I being tracked? Of course, I may or may not, but the trust is collecting personal shopping trends is unethical.
    Although Target may have just used the personal trends to marketing its products and have advantage over its competitors, there is no guarantee that the consumers’ shopping habits that had been gathered and analyzed is being used only for marketing strategy.
    For sure, the competition in market has come intense that for any business to keep going on well, it has to come up with something that gives it advantage over its competitors. But, it should be something that is ethical so that when competitors adapt it, too, it is not become chaos. For instance, if the other competitors attempt to gather and analyze personal trends as Target did, how would our privacy be? It may reach a point where our privacy would no longer be privacy anymore.
    Anyway, I maybe look too pessimistic about this data collection, but that is my opinion.

  12. Arth Patel

    It depends on the individual whether or not using big data in consumer services is ethical or not. Some people are very private about their lives and wants to share much little as possible about their personal lives, especially to big companies like Target who wants to know as much as they can about individuals’ habits of shopping and therefore make profits according to that behaviour. Others might no care as much to what kind of information does Target like companies have, and even if the companies do have information it’s the kind of information that will not harm the individuals’ lives in any way. If people do not want their information to be out there with the companies then there is an option of not providing the information. Information like being pregnant can be quite useful for those women who are pregnant; providing this information may get them additional discounted coupons or any other kinds of deals that will save great deal of money which will likely result in shopping at that particular store. People that might not be fine with providing information that they’re pregnant because their privacy rights are being violated. In my opinion, the decision is up to the individual to provide the information they want or not at all because it’s their lives being exposed. Getting vital information about individuals is very important to the companies like Target, it is how they operate and stay in competitive business market to earn profit. That’s what it’s about at the end of the day to Target, earning profit.

  13. Rui. Zhang

    As this article notied that the research is transforming customers understanding of how habits function across organization and societies. Companies can collect customes’ imformation by big data, and they can get many valuable information by people’s habits. Frankly, I think big data is promoting the demand of marketing. Merchants will be more understanding of people’s needs. In some way, for businesses and consumers to know each other to solve many practical problems. People can more easily get what they need. Moreover, big data is a very useful resource in doing business in an efficient way. There are many ways to use big data. For example, big data can help company to manage their inventory too. From the big data, manager can figure out which product them sale the most, and how much inventory they need for next period of sale.The skill you may need to be able to use big data in organization is the relatively high computer using skill. It means that in order to collect information people need to know how to run the application or soft ware to collect and assort all information. Also, it requires that people need to know how to analysis the information that collected. It means that people need to have good knowledge of management stuff. And good managerial working experiences can help to use those information collected to solve real problems.

  14. Bola Fowosere

    Whether or not there are any ethical dilemmas in using big data in consumer service is completely based on one’s personal preference. Companies and marketing firms have been gathering vast amount of information or database about their customers for years; tracking things like, where costumers go before and after their purchase, whether they are skydivers or football lovers and other psychographic, behavioural, geographic and demographic information like age, gender and income. With the increased use of technology, they have been able to collect, analyse and package some of our most sensitive and personal information as we unknowingly give out more and more private information, especially on social media platforms. For example, not only does company like google get information on what we search, but also which search results we click on. Although this sounds disturbing, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Firstly, firms use this information to micro target their selling effort by allowing them to understand not only consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits. Secondly, consumers often benefit from database marketing as most offers are closely matched to their interest and values. Nonetheless, the extensive use of database intrudes on the consumers’ privacy, especially when consumers do not know what, when and how their data is being used. In particular, most customers fear that marketers could use this knowledge to take unfair advantages of them. However, it could be less disturbing if customers know and provide consent before firms collect, use or disclose their information. In other words, we should have the right to know what information is being held about us and how this information is been used.

  15. Beili Bai

    The companies’ goal is collecting information on customers about their personal habits. Depends on their shopping habits, the company can get more profits on customers. They can offer them what they want. However, some information of customer is private for customers. People may not want that information to be known. Most company think collection of big data is very important. They keep record these information of customers regardless it is private or not. They can use these information to make predictive analytics to earn more money.
    Some companies get your personal information through apply point card or preferential card. They can get your address or e-mail in this way. Depends on your shopping record and shopping habits. They can analyze your purchases and make a predictive analytics about you, and they will mail you some handbills to your house or send some promotional mailings to your e-mail address depends on the predictive analytics.
    For myself, I do not feel comfortable if they got much information about myself, and I feel offending to get a lots of spams or handbills when I check my mailbox or E-mail even if sometimes it interests me.

  16. Hongyu Xu

    According to this case, I believe that using big data in consumer services could ethical dilemmas for some consumers. For the reason is that companies try to collect customers’ information to make a marketing strategies in order to make their own profit. Also, some information in the data could be the privacy of consumers. For instance, some consumers do not want to others know that they are pregnant, but some companies want to use this information to sell more products and services. This kind business behavior can be regarded as an invasion of privacy, which is a very serious problem. However, some might feel there is no ethical dilemmas to using big data in consumer services, because they consider that it can help companies know better about consumers’ needs, so that those companies can make a better decision or strategies to satisfy their consumers by using those big data provided, and also they provide a better services and products to consumers.
    Commercial applications for organizations in using big data can be found everywhere. For example, you might be asked to fill in some personal detail information when you apply point card, so that you would come back to shop that store in order to get more points. So this store can know you information, they may provide some percent off for you in your birth month, so that they can make more profit, they might also use the postcode you provide to know more neighborhood around you, so they can figure the approximate expenditure level and some other useful information, that can help them to do a better strategy for their business.

  17. Glenn ZoBell

    Whether or not using big data in consumer services is ethical will depend on the individual. One can argue that it is a complete invasion of privacy and information for Target to study and learn so much about people who may not want that information to be known. The other side of the argument is that if people do not want their information to be known then they should not give out their information. Many consumers may not care if certain information (like being pregnant) is known and may greatly appreciate receiving extra promotions for products they need. Others however, may feel their privacy has been invaded. It is not okay for an individual to study and analyze (stalk) another individual, so why should it be okay for Target to study and analyze individuals. In my opinion, the way Target is using big data is unethical, however I feel that for companies to analyze consumer patterns as a whole and not as individuals would be completely ethical.
    Big data could be useful in every commercial application from when consumers travel or buy airline tickets, to what channels and movies certain people are willing to pay for on television. I feel that any commercial business from convenience shopping to specialty shopping could greatly benefit from using big data to analyze who, when and how much consumers are buying.
    In order to use big data, I think that being able to organize, analyze and understand data would be the most important skill required.

  18. Wancong Lu

    There is an ethical dilemmas to using big data in consumer services. Although there is no law talk about secretly analysis a customer is illegal, it is still an unmoral thing. Target company use those predictive analytics to earn a lot of money, meanwhile, they keep record every one of their customers’ bill, information, etc. it is very easy to find a person’s detail information, even it is more clearly than police office’s personal data. That is dangerous for people’s date in the Target Company because of their unsafe internet, or unmoral employee. Employee can just sell people’s information easily.
    In the article, Target company give one positive example about predictive analytics, which is father found his high school daughter is pregnant. However, it is only one positive example, and I am pretty sure there are a lot of others do not like people to know their personal things, like pregnant. Even Target Company use trick coupon to put other products together, it is still unethical.
    I am not comfortable any of companies record my personal information, my shopping items, and every step I done. It feels like there is a camera follow me in everywhere.
    However, I am kind agree about to understand consumers’ shopping habits and their personal habits. This is one of the best way to increase company’s market. It is hard to change people’s habits because their brain are not function in decision making, they always follow the old pattern. Thus, company need to give people new cues and rewards to push them buy their products.

  19. Gordon Entz

    I see what target is doing as an invasion of privacy and taking marketing too far. I as a customer do not feel comfortable with them knowing that much information and directly targeting me with products as a result of the information they are collecting. It’s reasonable to collect basic information such as buying tendencies but I feel that it’s crossing the line to collect personal information without the consent or knowledge of the customer. I don’t want anyone trying to collect personal information about me such political leanings, personal finances, family information or my relationship status. Information like that is private and is not information that I want out there. That information may also be shared with third parties which further violates my privacy. This clearly violates the privacy of the people involved and is unethical. Even though what they are doing is legal it does not make it right and is bad practice. I don’t want to shop at stores who collect personal data about myself whether it be Target or any other store. One of the other things the writer points out is that Target is able to buy personal information. This is also something that should not even be an option. It makes you feel like you’re a commodity when someone is able to just buy information about you. I don’t doubt that this gives them a competitive advantage which is obviously why they do it but it not a practice I think they should be engaging in.

  20. Kim Sikhosana

    As we become more reliable on technology, it is not hard to believe that companies can easily learn your secrets. We are constantly posting on Facebook, twitting and instagraming and we are involuntarily helping these companies compile data.
    Ethically it is wrong to use big data for particular people because individual people have differences that might not be seen or recorded by the big data. However, the benefits of using the big data is that it records a variety of consumer behaviours. With more data the margin of error is reduced.

  21. Stephen Oman

    I would think that there are plenty of ethical dilemmas in using big data to identify something about a particular person.

    It highlights the need for education on what data people should share with organisations it also emphasises that organisations should have clear, public and understandable policies for their data collection and use.

    Of course, as we have seen in the past, pursuit of profit may win out over ethical niceties.

    1. Nathan Watmough

      I think I might have a different view on this then everyone else. I honestly don’t care if target knows that I prefer 1% milk over 2%. I don’t have anything to hide and if they can figure out that
      my wife is expecting a baby and I start getting coupons for diapers and wipes from 5 different super markets that’s fine by me. With all of the new technology we now have, we are trying to become as efficient as we can be. We personally try to analyze our own habits and tendencies using technology to become better. I do not see a problem with companies doing the same. I think at first it might be uncomfortable or disturbing to think about a company knowing so much about me but they aren’t looking at my particular data, they are looking for trends and obscurities and them knowing this could benefit us as consumers. For example, if Target can predict an increasing demand of something, they will be able to have a competitive advantage over their competitors. This advantage obviously makes it more advantageous for us to buy that product from them.

      Maybe I’m just playing devil’s advocate but that is my opinion.


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