Hey big retailers, the way you’re using Big Data is starting to get creepy

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Creepy Server Room

The data grab is underway at every retailer in the world at the moment, not to mention large enterprises and your favourite social networking platform. But it is beginning to get a little too creepy for my liking.

The first thing I want to get out of the way is that I am all for the personalisation of marketing material, promotions and coupons. I do not mind being targeted for certain promotions as long as there is some level or relevance there based on my demographics as well as my purchase history.

Basically every time that you go shopping and you pay with either your store card or your bank card; you are giving away clues that reflect the stage in your life that you are in. Couple this with your demographics and the retailers have a pretty good idea as to what you would be interested in buying next.

But there are a few retailers who are going too far and this is a little creepy in my opinion. Let’s take Target in the US (yes, I got the irony that their name is “target”). The large commercial retailer specializes in pretty much anything from the home to the family. What Target has been doing is analyzing the data of every shopping transaction that has been done and it found that it could predict what products a woman would buy while pregnant.

In total Target identified a set of around 25 products that were purchased by pregnant woman. Products like cotton balls; unscented soap; a selection of vitamins and supplements. Now that is not to say that pregnant women exclusively buy these products; but their frequency and order make all of the difference.

Target was also able to — based on this information — predict the date of birth with a small margin for error (this by the way is where it begins to freak me out a bit).

With all of this information it then sent very select marketing campaigns to the women who met these criteria and were essentially congratulating them on their impending bundle of joy before the women had told Target that they were expecting.

Essentially it was stalking their targets and feeding them specials for things that Target should not have known in the first place.

The debate here is: how far over the line have retailers who do this actually gone? Have they crossed the line at all? Essentially all they have done is provide you with a better and higher level of service simply by looking at you — as a client — with a little bit more detail. They have not crossed any legal boundaries by digging up confidential information — so what they have and are doing is not illegal — but is it ethical?

What Target has now done to try to get away from coming across as a creepy overachieving stalker is to mix in completely random advertising and coupons so that the mothers-to-be are not taken aback and startled that their local shop knows they are pregnant before they have necessarily told anyone.

As consumers we need to be very careful as to what level of detail we wish to expose to retailers and how specific we want to allow them to be when pushing marketing our way.

Parents of the world; if your daughter starts getting seemingly random messages and coupons featuring baby products and the like; perhaps it’s time to have a little father-daughter talk about any upcoming additions to the family.

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