How Companies Learn Your Secrets

The Times Magazine has a fascinating article on how companies use your habits to learn things about you that you may not have realized they could figure out. In the article they use an example of how Target can figure out if someone is pregnant based on what products they purchase:

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.

Now that you’ve identified a pattern, what do you do with it? As Spider Man said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

Which leads to, probably, the quote of the article:

“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,” Pole told me. “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”

The key is to intermingle baby related coupons with coupons for other unrelated items, which look to the pregnant consumer as totally random.

February 20, 2012

Americans admit to using phone in bathroom

In a survey, 75% of Americans admit to using their mobile phones while in the bathroom.

Blackberry users are most guilty of talking and tinkling, the survey found.

That doesn’t mean that Droid and iPhone users are off the hook. They’re more likely to browse a social network or use an app while on their potty break. That “Angry Birds” theme you thought you heard in the next stall? Yeah, you probably heard it right.

The other 25% lied.

February 18, 2012

Plain-clothes officer chases himself

A plain-clothes officer in England was patrolling the streets when an officer watching the same streets on CCTV radioed in about a suspicious person in the area:

The operator directed the officer, who was on foot patrol, as he followed the “suspect” on camera last month, telling his colleague on the ground that he was “hot on his heels”.

The officer spent around 20 minutes giving chase before a sergeant came into the CCTV control room, recognised the “suspect” and laughed hysterically at the mistake.

You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

February 9, 2012

Sheep shearing as an Olympic sport?

A group from New Zealand wants sheep shearing to be an Olympic sport:

New Zealand produces some of the world’s best shearers and its national championship, the Golden Shears, receives substantial media coverage in the country. Other shearing countries include Ireland and Australia.

It can’t be worse than bowling on TV, can it?

February 2, 2012