Target knows all about you … sort of

It’s a safe bet that Andrew Pole will never talk to another reporter after the treatment he and Target received in a piece in the Feb.16 edition of The New York Times with the headline, “How companies learn your secrets.”

The inference from the headline is that companies employ underhanded or deceptive means to obtain information people would like to keep private. In the case of Target and Pole’s efforts on behalf of the retailer, the lengthy article details how he developed a market basket analysis model that could be used to predict which shoppers might be pregnant so they could be provided relevant product offers. Market basket analysis has been a common practice in retail since point-of-sale scanning equipment and data warehouses first allowed retailers to glean insights from transaction data. What’s changed over the years is the expanding array of data streams that retailers and consumer packaged goods companies are able to incorporate and paint a picture of consumer behavior from which strategies to drive sales can be developed.

The methods employed by Pole, as outlined by the Times article, were actually fairly crude by today’s standards and downright archaic given where the field of analytics is headed. For example, one of the hottest trends in the burgeoning field of shopper insights on display last January at the National Retail Federation’s annual convention involves the field of video analytics. Software programs exist that allow video captured by shelf edge cameras or overhead cameras traditionally used for loss prevention purposes to be analyzed to determine shoppers age and gender. Another capability transforming how retailers communicate with shoppers relates to in-store wireless networks and the growing prevalence of smartphones. The technology exists for shoppers who participate in a retailer’s loyalty program to be served up a digital coupon or some other inducement to spend when they are within range and have opted in to the wireless network.

Such capabilities can be viewed as fascinating or creepy depending on one’s perspective which in the case of the Times was the latter. But to suggest that companies are learning secrets is a blatant attempt to feed into people’s privacy fears fueled by reports of identify theft, data breaches or intrusive searches at airports. Some concerns are well founded, but raising a fuss over Target’s method of detecting pregnant woman seems overdone, especially since pregnant women are usually pretty easy to spot.

See what you think. Read the Times article by clicking here, but be warned the piece is long.