How Target Knows Everything About You, Even If You Pay In Cash

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

A Forbes article describes Target is able to determine a teenage girl is pregnant before her father through massively complex data mining and pattern recognition techniques. The gist of the story is that every time you and everyone else pays with a credit card, they store all that data, look for patterns and exploit them.

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.

One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August.

The Internet’s collective response to this is “just pay in cash and stay of the grid.”

What the article does not point out is that it doesn’t actually matter whether you pay in cash or credit.

They know more you than you realize. Cue Tyler Durden: You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all a part of the same compost pile.

Set aside technology for a moment. If you pay in cash at a place like Target, here is what they know about you.

First and foremost, they know that you are the kind of person who shops at Target (or wherever), because you are there. Therefore you are not the kind of person who shops at Walmart, Costco, BJs, or Sam’s Club (ie. the set of places you don’t shop).

Target spends millions to construct an identity to attract you to them. The commercial is them telling you who they are. It is designed to pull for a type of person: the message is constructed to pull for the set of traits {A,B,C}. Are you in a Target? Then you heard the siren’s song. Therefore, you possess at least traits {A,B,C}.

You are shopping at Target. This is A. Therefore you are the kind of person that shops at Target. B. Therefore you are the kind of person that Target wants to have shopping at Target. C. A=B=C. Target knows C explicitly. Therefore they know A. They know you.

Second, they know you are the kind of person who pays in cash. If your purchases go beyond the bare minimum of WIC groceries, include any impulse items, or you ring up more than a de minimus amount at the register, it means that you are not paying in cash because you are poor, old, or an immigrant. You are paying in cash on purpose to avoid credit card data mining.

You do this because you are the type of person who does this. There are millions of special snowflakes just like that, and they know all about them.

They have run endless models and correlations of products that are bought together for cash. They analyze this data on an hourly basis all the way to a seasonal basis. Do you shop at night, in the morning, on weekdays, or on weekends? There is a profile for each of those kinds of consumers. Do people who pay in cash have a higher propensity to buy certain cereals, or packaged goods, or soaps?

You can say that you could shop anytime, or change what you buy, but you won’t. Habits are only habits to the person who has them. To everyone looking at that person, they are patterns.

All patterns can be recognized, all patterns can be exploited. All patterns are exploited, some more than others, but all to an increasing degree over time.

“But I pay in cash. I’m off the grid.” You shop at Target. You eat Kellogg’s cereal and drink a Coca-Cola soft-drink. You wash your clothes in a Procter & Gamble detergent, wash your hands, hair and body with a Unilever soap. You couldn’t be more on the grid. You’re practically standing at the origin.

Now imagine that Target, with its million dollar data centers, blanket 24-7 full color security camera infrastructure, has access to the same facial recognition software that iPhoto had two releases ago. You don’t think they can store an image of every face that has been in their stores, and match those images up over time to determine a pattern for that face appearing in that store? Casinos do this now when you walk in the door. Sure, they can’t put a name to a face. So what?

You think that because they don’t know your name they don’t know anything about you? You name is completely irrelevant. You didn’t even pick it. You name says more about your parents than it does about you. “They don’t know my address.” Oh, really? No one books airline tickets to shop at Target. If you are standing in a Target, Target knows you live within X miles of that store, because if you lived further away than that, you’d be shopping at a different Target.

Just because they don’t know who you are doesn’t mean they don’t know what kind of person you are. And if you are basically like everyone else–because you shop at the same stores, buy the same products etc.–what difference does it make whether you pay with cash or credit? What difference does it make whether they know your mailing address? So you can avoid getting a coupon from them for a product that you might want to use?

You really showed them. 

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26 Responses to How Target Knows Everything About You, Even If You Pay In Cash

  1. JWF says:

    So you walk in and they identify your face, match it up with a profile that includes your history. What does this enable them to do? They can analyze what you bought and select coupons that match this profile, but if they don’t have your mailing address…what’s the point? I don’t see where you’re going with this…

    • stiffbreeze says:

      It’s not about your privacy or home mailing address; it’s about understanding customer #12198412.

      To take the example of facial recognition further, it allows relay back to a central database of many variables that build a profile, such as purchases, dates and times visited store, time spent in store, areas of store visited, pattern walked in the store, end displays you looked at and for how long, impulse purchases made, etc etc etc. The purchase history alone creates a profile that can then be allocated to a certain customer demo market (you may behave just like their largest demo, or just like the 70th largest). They don’t need your mailing address to send you a coupon; it can be generated at the checkout for you (eventually). But I don’t think couponing is the goal. Their goal also isn’t to invade your privacy; it’s to understand you and your patterns, learn from it, and use the information strategically. Don’t take it personally.

      • JWF says:

        Yes, but my point was that even if they do compile a profile for customer #12198412, assign the profile to a demographic, thus ‘understanding’ this customer (a ‘consumer identity,’ if you will), what would they do with this profile? Why spend so much money on cameras and profiling software if all they have is a profile that will lie dormant in some database? What is the end goal of developing a consumer profile?

        • TheCoconutChef says:

          Targeted ad campaign that cater better to specific demos and customized merchandize for each store depending on the composition of the type of customer they have there?

    • Guy Fox says:

      Don’t worry about it, JWF. Pretty much nobody saw where he was going with this. Everyone jumped on the modalities and consequences of technical surveillance. Think about this:

      You shop at Target. You eat Kellogg’s cereal and drink a Coca-Cola soft-drink. You wash your clothes in a Procter & Gamble detergent, wash your hands, hair and body with a Unilever soap. You couldn’t be more on the grid. You’re practically standing at the origin.

      The point isn’t that you need to protect yourself from being catalogued via surveillance technology; it’s that you are trapped in a web of symbols that you didn’t create. Looking for technical ways to preserve your anonymity is a fool’s game because we’re all products in a catalogue. To the extent that people define themselves with mass-produced things, there can only be a limited range of individuals out there (e.g. Are you Marlboro-Coke-Nike or Camel-Pepsi-Adidas or Marlboro-Pepsi-Adidas or…?), and the models in that range are determined by the vermin trying to catch ‘early adapters’ ‘ eyes. Even if a company can’t pin down your address and phone number, they know all about you because they made you who you are.

      • JWF says:

        ahhh gotcha!

      • JohnJ says:

        “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”

        If it weren’t that web of symbols, it would just be some other web of symbols.

        • Guy Fox says:

          Of course it would, but I can imagine many alternative webs that would mean more than Gaga’s nipple slips, Tupperware vs. Rubbermaid, stars & stripes vs. a crescent moon, and success measured by the frequency of wardrobe updates.

          “Of course it is true that the keynote of idolatry is contentment with the prevalent gods.”

  2. JohnJ says:

    I shop at Target sometimes, and I shop at Walmart sometimes, and I shop at other places sometimes. I often pay in cash, though I am not poor, old, or an immigrant. I don’t live near the Target that I shop at most often. (Try to figure that one out, PB.)

    People can make educated guesses, and be right more often than not. But there is a difference between making an educated guess and knowing.

    JWF is right. They could install facial-recognition software if they wanted to. But they have no reason to. They’re profit-driven. Recognizing my face doesn’t do anything for them. They don’t care about me.

    I am not special. That’s why I’m safe.

    • DJames says:

      Been forever since I’ve commented/written. Just wanted to say that JohnJ absolutely nailed it: I am not special; that’s why I’m safe. Exactly right.

    • operator says:

      If we can all agree we are not special, can we agree that there’s nothing “safe” about being hamburger?

      We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

      • JohnJ says:

        Sure, but there are bigger threats to us than that. I’m willing to bet that pastabagel doesn’t care about Target. She cares about these rules apply to other things. She’s just using target to demonstrate how these rules work.

        My bet would be anonymous internet access. People use a variety of techniques to create anonymity on the internet. Some people go to McDonald’s. Some people use special software. Etc. Etc. Each technique says something about the person who uses it.

  3. RatB says:

    I think that that’s what the tinfoil hats don’t understand. Our Big Brother doesn’t care who you are, it’s only interested in what you are and what that means to it. Furthermore, I’m using the collective “you”. Unless you make up a customer type worth accommodating, you’re just noise.

  4. geerussell says:

    I don’t care that they spend millions composing a siren song. Traits {A,B,C} are very broad guesses over the entire customer base. Even the more specific assumptions based on what I bought on that trip to the store don’t let them do any more than narrow down what coupons they want to put on the back of my receipt. When I walk out the door, the relationship is over and for most places that’s just the way I like it.

    That’s an entirely different universe from constructing a specific, persistent identity for ME. For most places I shop I prefer to exercise some control over whether to opt-in to that. There are very few merchants I want to embark on a lifelong one-sided commerce-stalker relationship with. It adds no value to my life when they follow me home, clutter my mailbox with nuisance junk, call my phone and send me email. If I can opt out of that by paying cash, I’ll do so.

    The day when a low-margin high-volume retailer can deploy facial recognition the way a Las Vegas casino does is still in a distant future.

    • mitthrawnuruodo says:

      The point is less to send you coupons, and more to figure out how best to optimize their supply chain, figure out exactly what quantities of what products to put on what shelves next to what other products. To do this, they need unique IDs on every recurring customer to their store; facial recognition would be perfect to establish this unique ID. This is why every grocery store ever offers loyalty cards; it’s a cheap and easy way to identify customers. Once you have this, you can optimize for different predictable events. You can see how useful it would be to companies to have a pretty precise idea of how many customers have kids going to college this fall or knowing how many cats the average cat owner has judging by how much food is bought how often, and knowing how long it takes for the owner of one cat to decide on a second cat. All of this plays into how much cat food to stock., and what was once an inexact art has been turned into a science. If you think the store put out this neat product just for you, you are probably right.

  5. Arno says:

    Reading Pastabagel’s quote and then the linked article, a line bothered me:
    Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward… There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August.
    I assume, though it isn’t explicitly said, that that 87% isn’t the chance that Jenny Ward is pregnant, but is instead a confidence interval for the number of pregnant girls in a sample of people who bought the same products Jenny did. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to use a slightly incorrect explanation to give the readers the gist of what Target can do with their data, but in the context of narcissism (which Pastabagel was presumably going for) it makes a difference. Target doesn’t care about individuals; targeting individuals where a coupon is either a success or failure would be expensive. Instead, they are after large populations where an increase of 2% in sales due to a coupon brings in big money.

    Not being able to assume an audience knows basic statistics gives writers no choice but to fall back on language that promotes a focus on “me.” What I’m curious of is if they would use the same language even if their audience understood the difference between a probability and a confidence interval; poking at someone’s individual identity almost certainly gets a strong reaction from the audience than not poking.

    • Guy Fox says:

      Not being able to assume an audience knows basic statistics …

      Since I kinda get your point, I usually wouldn’t quibble about the misuse of a technical term, but since your point is that the use of this particular language was (semi-) deliberately calculated to mislead, you’re missing the big deception.

      A ‘confidence-interval’ is a range of values within which the statistic of interest (e.g. mean, standard deviation, etc.) lies in the population with a given probability. It’s always a range, which is why it’s called an ‘interval’. E.g. we’ve only checked 20 000 of our 200 000 000 unique customers, but from that sample there is an 80% chance that the average age is between 47.236 and 47.494 and a 98% chance that it lies between 47.0 and 48.0. Nobody hip to statistics would call a single value like 87% a confidence interval.

      Okay, so you got confused about some terminology you kinda remember from Stats 101, what’s the big deal, right? Well, you seem to figure that your knowledge of statistics is a kind of armour, that it can help to protect you against the nefarious agents out there who want to pull the wool over your eyes. But you don’t know what you think you know. Their stats are tight because that’s how they pay the rent; yours are flabby because to you stats are just a conceit of knowledge and that’s enough for you. The big deception isn’t what Target is doing or what the Forbes hack is writing; it’s that you convinced yourself that you had an angle, a foolproof system. The big deception is that you are being lied to – by yourself.

  6. docker says:

    i heard that’s one of the ways the look for “terrorism”. if a person pay for everything in cash, they must have something to hide, lol.

  7. BHE says:

    Privacy concerns are a luxury of the past. I was recently watching an episode of my nighttime lullaby “Forensic Files”, and in it they stated that the average American is videotaped *18 times a day* (I don’t have the time to fact check this at the moment, but I believe it–the 7-11, the ATM, the red light camera, driving past the bank). Your life is documented not just in data but in pictures.

    There’s also a good chance your fingerprints are in a system that could track you down from hundreds of objects you touched in the last week. Your DNA isn’t far behind, and you leave skin cells on everything.

    And whether or not you like it, there’s no going back now, the toothpaste is out of the tube. Living a life in the global technological village *requires* surrendering our personal selves. The time to act on privacy concerns was years ago, but the shiny new flashing objects were just so *pretty*.

    There was a time when we all lived in villages so small that everyone knew everyone else’s business and there was nothing you could do about it. Now we’ve come full circle–we’re so big that everyone knows everyone else’s business if they want to. And it’s time to have the serenity of accepting the thing you can’t change.

    Relax, you aren’t that interesting anyway.

  8. Jahed says:

    I just registered right now so I could say –


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