How Target Knows You’re Pregnant: Is Consumer Marketing Getting Too Personal?

Shopping carts

I bought my very first pair of pregnancy pants at a maternity store, and while the cashier was ringing up my sale, she had me fill out a card for a free something or other, and from that point forward my home mailbox was in constant receipt of tons of what I call Mommy Mail—parenting magazines and formula samples and postcards about baby fairs and diaper coupons for local stores. I was able to trace all that (junk?) mail back to the purchase of those first maternity pants because after I filled out the card in the store, I watched the cashier spell my last name wrong when she typed it into her computer, and that misspelling appears on almost all the Mommy Mail I get. I’m not surprised a company sold my personal information to marketers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not creepy.

Last week the New York Times Magazine published an article called “How Companies Learn Your Secrets”about how and why and, most importantly, when we form habits—information that marketing researchers then use to analyze and influence our shopping habits. Of all the life stages that prompt major changes in our purchasing habits, experts have identified as one of the most significant the time you find out you’re pregnant and start buying maternity and baby items. Get a customer hooked then, and chances are you’ll have her for life.

But how do they know who’s pregnant? Target (the company the article focuses on) assigns each customer a Guest ID number, that tracks all your activity with the store – purchases, returns, online searches, everything. According to the article’s author, Charles Duhigg, “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.” The store then adds that data to what they know about you from your Guest ID Number.

But finding out when a woman is pregnant has become so important to Target’s business (i.e., revenue) that it goes to major lengths to figure out when that moment happens. It goes beyond you signing up for a Target baby registry. The company has figured out the buying habits of pregnant women. So, if you buy, say, cotton balls, unscented lotion, and vitamin supplements, that could be enough for the data to suggest you’re pregnant, and maybe even predict your due date with some accuracy.

(There’s a great anecdote in the article about an irate father who complained to Target management that the store was sending his daughter pregnancy- and baby-related ads even though she was still in high school. The company apologized for the mistake. During a follow-up call a few days later, however, it was the father’s turn to apologize: his teenage daughter was indeed pregnant. The Target marketing machine just knew it before he did!)

The question here is how people react when they figure out how much Target knows about their personal lives. What might be good for sales might be disastrous for the store’s public image.

“If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” said Andrew Pole, a statistician for Target. “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things [that make] people get queasy.” The store’s current solution is to disguise targeted marketing to make it look coincidental. According to one unnamed Target executive, “We found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons….As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”

What do you think? Are you spooked? Should there be tighter restrictions about what companies are allowed to know about their customers (assuming that’s even possible), or are you fine to let them keep doing what they’re doing if it means coupons and free samples delivered to your door? Is this level of information analysis invasive? Or do you welcome it if the result is your own convenience and savings?