How stores like Target use data to read your mind

Shops know our habits from what we buy to when we buy it.

It's tough, as a person living in the world, to realize that you aren't a special snowflake, unique among the masses. In truth, though, an astounding amount of the things we do can be boiled down to measurable behavoioral patterns. Sometimes, even a simple errand can reveal hidden truths about the type of person we are.


That's the lesson we learned in a landmark piece for the Times Magazine that explores the hidden world of consumer information: how retailers like Target record what we buy, how we buy it, where we live, what we do and how we do it to a unique code.


Essentially, every time you buy something, your buying habits are recorded and used so that companies can send out coupons to encourage you to buy again from that particular store. To take just one example, if you buy a swimsuit in April, Target will send you coupons for sunscreen in December.


It goes even further. Target has identified a series of 'habit cues' for pregnant women. In the case of angry angry father, the retailer knew before the family did:


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.”

They. Know. Everything.