I was going to title this article “How Target Knows You’re Pregnant Before You Do”, but my mom mentioned to me that my titles never truly match what the heck I’m talking about. This article is going to be a rare exception to that rule. Thanks Momma.
The predictive power of computers–once they have enough data–is fascinating. My preoccupation with data began when I learned that supermarkets were getting in trouble for sending out ‘suggestive’ coupons after crunching a customer’s shopping habit data. The prime example of this, I believe, was Target. Target was sending women coupons for baby stuff before these women knew they were pregnant! Imagine the father of a high school daughter getting maternity clothing coupons in the mail? [for a great article on this, check out How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did, Kashmir Hill, Forbes, Feb 16, 2012]. Similar problems are created at home when criminal defense attorneys start sending “Arrested? Hire Me” letters to that same daughter–somebody’s going to start asking questions. Sure, kids think that they can hide their shenanigans by intercepting the mail before Mom & Dad get home, but “kids helping out” can be even more suspicious than overly suggestive attorney solicitations.
Anyway. How does Target know a woman is pregnant? Well, we humans are rather predictable. No, I’m not talking about you, dearest reader–you are unique, different, and “nobody understands you.” Target’s computers were able to anticipate the shopping needs of women based upon changes in their shopping history. Once a computer knows you’re buying luggage, you’ll be buying “travel size” deodorant and toothpaste at any moment. Same goes for pregnant women. The data points were, apparently, more sophisticated than the old myths regarding pickles & ice cream. It was important that Target figure out when a woman was pregnant before it is made public, because, “birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way.” [from an excellent article entitled “How Companies Learn Your Secrets“, by Charles Duhigg, New York Times, Feb 16, 2012] Duhigg’s NYT article provides some clues on how this works, noting that: “One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August.” Continue Reading