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?


72 thoughts on “Companies Learn Your Secrets

  1. jordan kwiecinski

    From a management perspective, Big Data is a very exciting technology that is on the rise. Big Data is allowing managers to see the market in a more in-depth view, which allows them to supply products that should be more widely accepted. This also helps managers identify certain aspects of their products that they are missing out on or can improve on. This though comes at a price of the consumer losing their own privacy in turn for products that are more tailored towards them. In my opinion, there are times that I feel a lot of personal data is out in the public sphere but I also find that because of that I’m able to be targeted for products I would have never really known about. Which when weighing the pros and cons I find that the pros outweigh the cons, which leaves me being comfortable with my information being taken as long as it’s used in an efficient manner.

  2. Kelsey Hallett

    Being aware that there is an astounding amount of data about myself online is a very odd feeling. Since I never really see or feel any of the direct outcomes of companies documenting data about my purchases or online searches, it is easy to feel disconnected and unbothered. I actually think it is very cool, for lack of a better word, that so many huge business decisions are based on the data that individuals unknowingly provide. I am not too worried about the idea of companies knowing all about me after being raised with all of the social media and such, it has become quite a familiar feeling. I know many people who are greatly concerned with this concept, with good reason, but since it is entirely out of my control I try not to stress about it. Ideally, I would prefer that there was less data about me in the public sphere but I also understand a lot of the benefits that it provides.

    Being a combined health science and management student, I see a lot of discussion surrounding the use of this information for health care and how helpful it can be in so many ways. I find epidemiology interesting and have read articles and watched TED talks about how useful this collected data can be in tracking and positively interfering with diseases. Being able to track key words that individuals search, such as certain symptoms, largely assists epidemiologists and other professionals in reducing the impact of disease on a population. I find this use of data very interesting and as a manager would definitely embrace it.

  3. Braden Girard

    I feel that there is a certain line that can be crossed when doing so. Knowing the power and capabilities of certain companies being able to obtain your personal information and bring it out into the public sphere can be nerve racking, especially when considering hackers or cyber terrorists. If that information falls into the wrong hands, I believe a lot of damage could be done. I also can consider in the fact that the more data about an individual in the public sphere, can be of a convenience to you. Companies can learn exactly want you want/need and when you want/need it. Just through tracking your daily routines and what you buy, one day everything you need may start to be delivered to your door without your knowledge (probably a little far fetched).
    If I were a manager of a business I would seek great opportunity out of the big data technology. Just as target did, by taking advantage of this data, they were able to increase sales by the billions. If that doesn’t spark an appreciation for big data I don’t know what would. Using the big data technology would help improve certain quantities of stock you’d carry and when to replace it, it could help you decide the optimal times of when your store is open or closed, the possibilities you use with that data are endless.
    The most exciting application of this big data would be to find out ways to create a more sustainable business. You would probably be able to record/access data that lets you get to know your stakeholders well. Once the info is obtained, apply it to your business. Pursuing sustainability is a great way to pursue profits.

  4. R-M Nyberg

    1. Upon reflection of this article, I do not feel that there is too much information out in the public sphere about me. My favorite place to spend money is at the grocery store. When I go shopping for food, I get excited over all the choices that I have. If the reason that I have the choices that I do is a result of the information the grocery store collects from me when I go through the checkout, then I do not mind. And I also love shopping at Shopper’s Drug Mart. It is so fun to pick out my health and beauty aids to use by Shopper’s card that creates a profile of my demographic preferences.
    2. As a manager of a business, I would be happy that Big Data technology would allow me to find ways to delight my clients. I know what it is like to receive excellent client services and remain more than willing to spread the word about how impressed I am by a staff person or organization. The intersection of data and human behaviour is remarkable and able to provide deep insight into the best ways to deliver your service or product to those who are willing to pay for it. On a personal note, I buy a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables because, God willing, I want to live a long and healthy life. I find the assignment of a unique code given to consumers as a means to learn what shopping habits exist for consumers to be a helpful tool.

  5. Tim

    This article appears to be looking at customer behaviour and how to target a customer more effectively. It is using the example of Target trying to target pregnant women, as this is when life is at its most unstable, and therefore open to new things. The issue of habits is central to this article.
    I’m not necessary against this form of marketing, as has been said business is always about making money usually defined as increasing shareholder’s wealth, and increasing sales is one way to do this. it is a little concerning when you consider the amount of data that is available, on the web (I haven’t done a web search on my name, that just a little narcissistic). If I sign up for a loyalty card, then I’m assuming that the benefits I receive will outweigh the costs (i.e. the points I receive will outweigh the info I give them). If you have made that choice, then you need to accept that this information will be used to target you and persuade you to spend more at the shop.
    If you are not happy with that then there are a couple of ways that could be used to combat this. With the 1st one being don’t sign up for loyalty programs and pay cash for everything. The other way could be to use a fake name and identity, doing this might mean you run into legal problems but again it is a cost benefit situation.
    I think every decision is a cost benefit decision. The amount of information you wish to release, and make available to the public – and make no mistake any piece of information you give out will be made public, must give you a benefit just as it benefits the retailer. There is no way to avoid this, unless you can find a deserted island and live like Robinson Crusoe we need to accept it, be aware and careful with the information we give out.

  6. Jordan Doram

    Yes I completely agree that there is too much data out in the public about individuals that does not need to be out there. The issue of invasion of privacy has become a huge issue today that should be addressed but most likely never will. After reading this article it really enhancing the fact that if people want to and are motivated to find information out about you then they will find a way to do so. There are a lot of times that websites “trick” you into believing that your information is being secured and won’t be shared in the public. However, in the fine print there is always an exception that people overlook again and again. It’s also an invasion of privacy when websites allow certain companies to track them customers by IP address and follow their activity to find out what their interests are and such. By doing this they can tailor their advertisements to specific pages that will catch a consumers eye but not one person asked for this gesture. There was no agreement or even consideration to inform users on the information about themselves that is being put out there.

  7. Keshah Austin

    After reflection, I can honestly say I am not sure about this question.  Is there too much information about me? Yes, maybe there is but in pure ignorant bliss I would like to hope that those who have my information will protect it to the best that they are able too. That being said I know that are not without risks. Having recently received a letter stating that my education information from elementary school to high school graduation may be out there makes me very uncomfortable but with the knowledge of knowing that the breach is being checked into makes me feel a bit better. But we also have an opportunity to protect our information. We have the option to create settings of what we want out in the land of Internet.  And I also think that it is virtually impossible to not have our information out there. This is something that is inevitable.
    I think that in the future the ability to know all this is information in the public sphere is going to be beneficial. As a business they will be better able to know their customers and also how to make products that are better suited to them. It is a win win situation for both businesses and customers. At the end of the day, it is a love hate relationship with our information being out there. Some days we love it and other days we hate it.

  8. Leigh Muirhead

    This article really exposes the vulnerabilities we face as consumers in a world where our personal information is shared and bought as easily as it is to purchase milk at the local grocer. The Jenny Ward profile is the perfect example of how personal information is easily extracted and then sold for profit. I do not think that most consumers actually understand the extent to which they are personally exposed through their consumer behavior. There is this unspoken trust between a consumer and seller, almost like a relationship that is created so people feel comfortable giving unnecessary personal information. Since you purchased a product from this organization you are supporting them so why would they challenge this trust and sell your information to a third party. Such data is extremely valuable for marketers to better reach consumers and increase their bottom line so they are willing to pay big money for this data. Information security in the marketplace has been weakened thanks to the heightened access to data through social media sites and more people using tech based networks. I personally feel like my personal bubble is being invaded through the spread of my information that I have provided to one source that then ends up on another. It is almost scary, makes me think how much they really know about me and to what extent is too much? I think with the advancement in technology and the heightened importance placed on big data as a society we are going to have to determine ethical guidelines to the exploitation of data between companies, organizations and even the government.

  9. Alex Geates

    1. There will always be more data on each of us as an individual than we ca likely comprehend. The previous generation tends to blame the internet and is generally shy about putting their personal information online. I find it interesting that this type of data leaves no stone unturned and means there is data on everyone no matter how careful you try to be.
    2. The biggest benefit of big data is the ability to target advertisements to individuals. I believe people are more susceptible to advertising they can relate with while also being more acceptable of advertising if it aligns with their interests. Hopefully big data becomes downsized in the furture so it can be used more readily by the small business owner as well.

  10. Jessica L

    Asking whether or not there’s too much public data about ourselves is kind of irrelevant question. It is Already out there. What we can do at this point is develop new security measures to prevent ourselves from having too much information publicly available if that is a concern you have. There’s certain things that we can do to remove ourselves from the pool where the excess of information is drawn from. Things like turning off location settings for your phone. By only allowing your phone to know where you are unless you tell them where you are. Disabling cookies will also help you in the battle between you and your phone knowing more intimately who you are.
    One thing that struck me about this article was the habit identification. If you’re able to go through and evaluate the cue and reward system and tweak it to satisfy an end, it seems a shame that we are using this in other industries. Things like smoking, drug addiction, alcoholism. I didn’t like how, if the technology is out there, it isn’t being used for societies benefit, only corporates benefit. It seems like such a waste to only use this knowledge on marketing campaigns that will earn money, rather than fighting addictions and helping improve people in a more meaningful way and provide a higher quality of life.

  11. Simone Bowes

    I found the Jenny Ward profile disturbing, because I could apply it to myself and figure out how I was being enticed and rewarded. It is difficult to understand the scope of how much actual data is out there and how much money is being made off of me. I think it’s fair play for a company to collect data from me if I choose to shop there, however when my data is being sold to other parties it almost feels like there is this weird intangible exploitation happening because I will never see those numbers. When I receive output from my data, such as targeted ads that benefit me, I feel rewarded for giving it. Target’s blunder with the pregnant teenager also raises the question of targeted advertising to minors. Target spooking expectant mothers also reminds me of the Facebook blunder where images of those who had died were still included in their holiday photo montages. A father was very upset with Facebook when a photo of his deceased daughter wound up in his photo montage – it is fascinating that at the time, despite being a social watering hole, Facebook had not figured out what to do with death data. Or perhaps they had not gathered enough data to identify and parse deceased/inactive accounts. I think there being too much data comes down to how it is being handled, and both Facebook and Target were obviously viewing there customers as profiles instead of people.

  12. Layla Lahiji

    Technology has become very intrusive in today’s society. Once the information is out there, there is no removing that information from cyberspace — where anyone can access the information and take advantage of it. It makes me kind of worried. Most of the time, we don’t think about what we’re putting out there. Our name, our likes/dislikes, and other personal information are all out there for people to see. For example, looking back on my Facebook account, how many videos, thoughts, likes, have I shared or reacted to? All these are being recorded. Amazon is another great example. I love buying books whether in-store or online, and as a consumer, it’s great to have a list of personal recommendations based on previous interests and purchases. However as an individual who is conscious of the various dangers of internet safety, it’s creepy and the amount of information that they can find out about you is astonishing. The scary part is we do it without thinking and have come so accustomed to the lack of privacy that we don’t really care if it is out there. Many people have the mindset that “If I can’t see the harm, how bad could it really be?” The consequences could greatly impact every individual. With all this information out in the open, there are countless threats and opportunities of privacy invasion. I’m pretty worried about what the public sphere has on file about me. Information that I put in years ago could be used today for or against me — even if I don’t remember what it is I entered into the online database. There is definitely an overall concern about the advancement of technology and our safety.

  13. Robert Mercer

    The first time I read the article I was a little worried. But, looking over it again, I changed my mind.

    When I scroll through Facebook I can easily find compromising information and pictures on many of my friends. I can even search people who aren’t my friends and within several minutes I can find the same kind of damaging material. We willingly give up information (cue) in hopes of finding more friends and engaging in more interactions. The reward is seeing the little red notification button pop up.

    The article shows same happens during check-out at many stores, (target was the example). We willingly give away our addresses, birthdays and other information in order to be entered for a draw or get a discount the next time we shop (reward). We may not realize it at the time but, company’s uses this information in hopes of creating a more engaged and regular customer. They gather and organize all the information on each customer. They can than predict our spending habits and customize coupons and discounts for each individual. They can even predict certain times in people’s lives where they are prone to switch stores. At this point it is the store will try to recruit you as a loyal customer.

    In the article Target assured they are not breaking any laws. They were just using what information we readily gave to them, and all the power to them. If a person is concerned with what information a company has on them, don’t give them information. Don’t fill out questionnaires, or give your email. Don’t use a credit card, use cash.
    It might be little freaky getting coupons about a pregnancy before anyone else knows, but the information is out there (including this article), and it is up to the person to inform themselves. As long as target stays within the legal boundaries it doesn’t bother me. They are simply effectively using the information given to them to meet their business goals.

  14. Spensor Griffith-Cochrane

    I have long felt that there is way too much data about me in the public sphere, unfortunately, it is something very difficult for me to control. Companies are able to track spending habits so they can sell stuff to me, tack pictures, comments, and posts that I have ‘liked’ on Facebook so they know what my political stances are and what my personal life is like. The truly troubling part is that all this collection is taking place largely without my consent, or at least without my direct consent. It is nearly impossible to properly consent to the data that is being collected about you, there are just too many people in too many places collecting too much data and selling it to anyone who will pay. The amount of data and the type of data that is being collected is almost too much for any one person to handle, or even fully comprehend.
    There are a lot of really exciting applications for big data in the future, it can be used to make shopping faster and more convenient, personalize your health care in many ways never seen before. The effects of big data can already be seen in our daily lives. You can scroll through your Facebook and largely see products that are tailored to you, news from sources you actually read and other relevant information to you. Gone are the days of your add bars being full of products and services useless to you. One of the most exciting things for me is the ability for big data to bring consumers and retailers together.

  15. Michael Isfeld

    I do believe that there can be too much data out in the public sphere about me. While it is possible to limit the information on the public sphere about yourself, it is virtually impossible to escape it completely. Data is being collected on people both from us giving it up freely on social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as from sites we may not be aware of or is not as obvious at first sight. For me personally, I tend to keep my life as private as possible however with social media sites it is not as easy as it once was. For example, I could be doing some sort of various activity and if one of my friends on took a picture of me and posted it on Facebook, many people that I don’t even know could get an insight into my life. I also think of services such as iTunes that has a long contractual agreement when you sign up for it. By using iTunes, we may in fact be giving apple the right to sell parts of our information to data gatherers. While that is just an example and possibly not even realistic the fact that we give out our information almost freely in everything is more than enough of an example to me that there is too much data out on the public sphere not just for me, but for everyone.
    As a manager, it is exciting to see all the possibilities big data is opening for marketing. While, as I stated above, there is too much data on the side of the private citizen, as a business it opens all sorts of amazing possibilities such as more in depth demographic studies of a business’s consumer base.

  16. Cole Malaka

    1) I do think that there is too much data floating around about me. The fact that so many sources are gathering information about me without my knowledge or consent really bothers me. This is the key part, it’s the fact that at the end of the day I have no idea what data about me is actually out there, and there is no real way to determine this either. If companies asked for consent CLEARLY and specified exactly who and what they were distributing and using this data for I probably wouldn’t have an issue with this, it’s the not knowing that’s the problem. It’s scary to think that at any time, someone could use this data for whatever they want, and that my information is for sale. My wishes and feelings are irrelevant to the equation. Just think of the implications of this. If someone got their hands on this information think of the damage they could do to someone’s reputation and possibly career with this information, they can use, distribute, and manipulate it in any way they see fit to warp opinion about a person. So to clarify, I think there is too much data about me in the public sphere that I don’t know about, and haven’t directly consented to. If I had a choice in the matter, and could access and choose what information I wanted to allow to be public, my opinion would be very different.

    2) Like I said above, I do believe that the laws and ethics around big data need to change to protect individual privacy. However, I do see the value that big data has to offer businesses. As a manager, this is very exciting. The fact that I can personalize advertising and individualize each customers experience is very exciting. This allows for a competitive advantage we have never seen before. Big data has the potential to forever change and streamline the shopping experience. We could show the customer what they want before they even know it exists! Businesses could further specialize and serve micro-niche markets successfully. Big data offers opportunities for everyone! The customer, the small business, and the large corporation. It will be interesting to see how the use of big data develops in years to come, as well as what laws and ethical standards will come to play surrounding it.

  17. Amanda Brown

    I do feel like there’s too much data in the public sphere about me. I think its really convenient for people to go about there day doing trivial things such as shopping and posting things on Facebook without stopping to think that something could be monitoring them. I know I never really thought about it before taking this class and it has opened my eyes to just how much data, companies have on me. Even the other day I was online shopping for a Bubba Mug, comparing prices of various stores and since then Facebook and YouTube have had adds for Bubba Mugs. Big Data is a really new and exciting way to do business. As a customer I’m not particularly fond of it but to a business manager it opens up an entirely new playing field. Through the analysis of Big Data a statistician can predict future events as specific as having a baby. This allows for the company to tailor marketing to meet the specific profile of each customer in turn making the business more profitable. Other applications of Big Data include providing a competitive advantage to a business that can afford to purchase data on their customers from other sources

  18. Kemorine R

    I definitely believe that there is too much data out in the public sphere not just about me but all of us. Information that we are often unaware of is gathered about us based on everything we do on our computers and phones. This includes everything from credit card information, the places we frequently visit, our addresses etc. We, for the most part, have no control over where this information goes and who it goes to as companies are able to buy and sell that information for their own benefit.
    I think it is important for us as individuals to become more actively engaged in learning about our rights as consumers particularly those around privacy. This will enable us to keep companies accountable for their actions. In addition to that we should try to be mindful of the information that we choose to share with companies and in the public sphere in general.
    As a manager the advancement of big data technologies can have tremendous benefits for your company as you are able to tailor your products to meet the specific demands of your customers. If you are able to do this well then you will reap huge success. However as customers, it is unsettling to know that companies are able to access personal information about us, information that could be used against us depending on who is able to access it. Especially with the increase in incidences of hacking, companies need to do more to ensure that our privacy remains protected

  19. Greg Benty

    I personally think there is too much personal data being gather and sold without our permission. I know some would argue that they are only using the information to make a buck. In some cases, it can actually improve a product and make it closer to our customer needs. But on the other hand having that much data makes it easier for marketing companies to brainwash us. I want to go to a store and buy the products I need, not get distracted by what I have been mailed in a coupon book three times this week. I could practice more self control which is fair enough, however when they are taking advantage of pregnant women, I think that’s where it crosses the line. Having a baby should be one of a families most intimate moments. However, marketing companies all seem to know about it and fight to win you over at your most vulnerable time. One part of me wants to tip my hat with the amount of information that goes into marketing, but when I think of it from my point of view I don’t agree. When its my information getting analyzed that scares me a bit. It only takes one hacker or glitch in the system for my information to get into the hands of a bad person. There should be more regulations on what information can be gather and more control on our own information. At the end of the day people will buy good products, so maybe put more focus on the products themselves.

  20. Utkarsh Pokhariyal

    With technology it is impossible not too have too much dat about yourself. It is so easy for companies to go through your profiles and extract anything needed. Any websites you visit or any shopping you do online, all this data is collected very easily and sold to data seeking companies. Data mining is such a common thing that we overlook how often it happens. On a daily basis, Data from our smart devices is being extracted and being easily accessed by all sorts of data mining companies.

    Big Data can be used in numerous ways. A couple of those options are, using these data to increase a companies productivity and profitability. Secondly, the data can be used to market certain products that best fit the consumers.

  21. Alyssa Snyder

    I definitely believe that there is too much private data floating around about each of us. We do not hide our information as well as we used to so it is more easily accessible. This means that is is esier for different stores to target our needs and give us individual promotions, which will help us in the long run, but it also shows how easy it is for someone to steal this information for inappropriate uses. I believe that we should be aware of what information is being collected about us and how it is being used. We should be able to tell companies whether or not we want them to track us for future shopping posibilities.
    As a manager of a business I believe that techniques such as these data analytics ould come in very handy because we would be able to design our business on exactly what the customers want, not just on a general market test.


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