In what will surely add volume to the already noisy debate about data collection (and the perhaps false notion that consumers will freak out once it finally dawns on them that it is being done in a big way by retailers and marketers in order to sell them more stuff) The New York Times has just published a lengthy story about Target and its data collection and analysis efforts.
To folks in the ad business, little of the story will come as a surprise (and might even provide a few tactics to copy), but one utterly fascinating part is about how your brain turns routines into habits that fire without much conscious thought. It goes a long way toward explaining why you develop bad habits and why they are so hard to break. Habits start with a mental trigger and end with a reward. If you can eliminate or change the trigger, you have a fighting chance of changing the habit. The story's author beat a daily cookie habit and lost 21 pounds.
Interestingly, the story is not yet another shrill "What Do They Know" attack on Internet data collection. It’s really just about a retailer collecting in-store shopping habits over time to project lifestyle situations in which the customer might be receptive to new kinds of product offers. There is a long aside about the lengths a consumer products company went to, to understand why their go-to-market strategy was wrong, and what they did to eventually make the product a success. So the overall take is that marketers try to leverage psychology (OMG!!!) and research to sell more product.
So does the Army, in trying to recruit kids to put their lives on the line. So do politicians, to get voters to like them and their platforms. Nearly every form of entertainment is tested over and over to refine its appeal -- whether this is called "opening out of town" or brain scanning in a lab to see how potential audiences feel about the characters and the story line. Fashion is tested and reformatted for greater appeal. Food is endlessly tested before being unleashed on the public. So are fragrances and lawn mowers -- and, well, just about everything around you. Critics say this is done to sell us stuff we don't want or need. Manufacturers will say it is to refine products so they work best for customers, or appeal to their perceived wants and needs, or to differentiate products from the competiton. The fact that some of the research is centered on how people's brains perceive and react to products should not come as much of a shock.
But I think it does cause some discomfort to the great unwashed to learn that retailers and marketers in effect psychoanalyze buyers to get them to buy more, even if the offering is perfect for that moment in their lives. Perhaps they think researchers can peer into the unconscious and deduce that someone is secretly a pedophile -- or worse, a liberal Democrat. No one likes to be "found out," especially by analysts piecing together their lives based on purchase habits. That this has been going on for years and years and is refined into more of a predictive science every day seems not to bother most folks (unless, of course, when it is happening ONLINE!!!).
These kinds of stories will give ammo to the privacy industry to be sure, but I suspect most folks will keep shopping at Target as usual.