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How Target Knows You’re Pregnant and Other Creepy Retailer Tricks

by Alonzo on February 21, 2012

Every time you swipe your loyalty rewards card or use your department store credit card you’re giving merchants valuable information that is collected, reviewed and analyzed.

Your toothpaste or magazine purchase may not seem like much to you, but for corporate American it’s vital information that’s used to shape the way you shop and spend money.

In his recent column, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg sheds light on exactly how effective merchants are at using our shopping data, so effective that they can even predict which customers are pregnant.

And why not? Expectant parents, as it turns out, are the Holy Grail for retailers. According to Duhigg:

“… among life events, none are more important than the arrival of a baby. At that moment, new parents’ habits are more flexible than at almost any other time in their adult lives. If companies can identify pregnant shoppers, they can earn millions.”

And while most merchants try to reach these coveted consumers as soon as their new bundles of joy arrive, Target attempted to reach this lucrative market as earlier as the second trimester of pregnancy.


By mining the volumes of data they collect every day on their customers. If a customer all of suddenly starts buying unscented lotion or hand sanitizer, for instance, it could signal they were expecting. By identifying numerous such pregnancy “buying signals” Target could accurately predict which of its shoppers were expecting.

According to the Times article:

“The only problem is that identifying pregnant customers is harder than it sounds. Target has a baby-shower registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.
And it’s not just baby business that Target was looking to snatch. They know full well that the mom or dad shopping for baby products is likely to pick up other household products in the process.”

But how would expectant parents react to receiving coupons from Target for baby products? Would they be “weirded out” by a company knowing about such an intimate event seemingly out of the blue? It seems Target had this covered as well. Simply mix the baby coupons in with coupons for totally unrelated products. Just like that, mommy-to-be has no idea she’s being targeted.

According to one Target executive:

“…we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.”

But expectant parents aren’t the only ones on Target’s or any other retailers’ radar screens.

According to Duhigg, there are several points in our lives during which our shopping habits are open to change. These periods provide retailers with the opportunity to snag our business in the hopes of creating new long-term customers. Recent newlyweds, college graduates, and divorcees are just a few of the groups on retailers’ hot lists. And everyday we hand them the data that makes their job all the easier.

What’s your take? Is retailer data mining creepy, or is it what we should come to expect with shopping in the new Millennium?

Photo Credit: Mr. T in DC



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