Target Knows You Better Than You Know YourselfS

We're used to paranoia about social networking sites like Facebook gleaning personal information from our "Likes" and "Shares," but this fascinating NYT Magazine piece gives us a look into how companies like Target have been intensely profiling their customers for decades. It's a fine line: if companies go too far snooping on their customers, they risk turning them off, but if they get it right, they make billions. And that possibility is so enticing that almost every major retailer, including investment banks and the U.S. Postal service, has a "predictive analytics" department that employs people like Target statistician Andrew Pole, the focus of the piece, whose job it is to figure out how to sell customers items they don't even know they need without creeping them out.

Target, which refused to comment for this piece and actually put the writer on a "prohibited visitors" list for investigating further, is so adept at "predictive analytics" that the company once correctly identified a teen girl as pregnant based on her purchases before her own father even knew she was with child. Pregnant women are ideal customers because, if Target hooks them in their second trimester, the company believes they've got them for good. As Pole explains:

"As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they're going to start buying everything else too. If you're rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you'll grab a carton. Oh, and there's that new DVD I want. Soon, you'll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back."

Pregnant or otherwise, if you've ever shopped at Target there's a good chance you have a Guest ID number that keeps tabs on everything you buy and knows "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 also 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."

The entire story is worth reading, even though I already had a pretty good idea why my grocery store keeps sending me ads for Buy One Get One Free wine deals. As long as Target doesn't know I'm pregnant before I do, I'm not too bothered by their invasive research.

How Companies Learn Your Secrets [NYT Magazine]