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Mad Men Know Secrets

February 25, 2012

Identifying pregnant women is the Holy Grail of retail.”    Bwahahahahaha

This is kind of a sister post to The Marshmallow Test, where we looked at will power and decision fatigue. Here, we look at habits, and who it is that knows us at least as well as we know ourselves.

In his latest book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, New York Times writer Charles Duhigg tells the funny, disturbing, and (self-) helpful story of Target’s successful capture of the pregnant women customer demographic. I can’t wipe the grin off my face as I type this and I can’t help thinking that I would have really enjoyed the work of statistician and data analyst.

Text and video excerpts from the Times article after the jump.

Excerpt from 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.

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. What’s more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny’s habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she’ll use it when she comes back again.

In the past, that knowledge had limited value. After all, Jenny purchased only cleaning supplies at Target, and there were only so many psychological buttons the company could push. But now that she is pregnant, everything is up for grabs. In addition to triggering Jenny’s habits to buy more cleaning products, they can also start including offers for an array of products, some more obvious than others, that a woman at her stage of pregnancy might need.

Heads-up on the NYTimes article and this Forbes article via Dubious Quality.

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2 Comments
  1. Kenai 91 permalink
    February 26, 2012 7:00 am

    Finally exerted enough self control to watch and read both of these posts. 🙂

    I definitely understand decision fatigue. Especially the kind that results from constant requests from either children or spouses. The kind where you finally agree to their request, just so they’ll leave you alone.

    Dear God, I’m tired just thinking bout this whole topic. Gonna take a nap now…

    • 3Suns permalink*
      February 26, 2012 2:27 pm

      LMAO! ❤

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