October 2, 2013 - Many of us have done it. The checker is ringing up your groceries and lets you know that you could save two whole bucks if you sign up for one of the store's rip roaring super saver bonanza cards. All you have to do to get a buy-one-get-one-free package of cream cheese or toilet paper is give their database all of your personal contact information. Surely it's nothing more than a harmless way for the supermarket to send you extra coupons in the mail, right?
Wrong. Loyalty cards are about way more than just making you feel special by saving you a few measly cents off your bill.
According to a report by The Guardian, stores use these Big Brother-esque card programs to build sophisticated databases on their customers which include everything from your demographics to how much you spend and how often you shop. This data is then analyzed National Security Administration-style and used to target
and entice you based on what you might consider buying and when.
The data mining goes even further than club cards. Stores
will also look, supposedly anonymously, at credit and debit card purchases to analyze how often a particular customer comes in and what they buy when they do. If shoppers who spend more all tend to buy the same product, that product will always get stocked by association even if it isn't a hot seller.
Using credit or debit card digits, stores will even go so far as to hire research firms to analyze the other places their customers shop as a way to decide where to build a new location, for example.
Although shops claim they do not sell customer data to third party vendors, the stores interviewed for The Guardian
would not divulge how deals were worked out with brands to decide what coupons to offer a shopper for what products and when. You can best believe it is anything but random coincidence.
Collection of vast amounts of data on shoppers isn't anything new for most retail outlets, but some have taken it to a level hardly anyone would suspect. Take Target Stores Inc. for example. The company doesn't just hire cashiers, stockers and store managers. They also hire mathematicians and data scientists.
In an interview with The New York Times, Target Statistician Andrew Pole said, "If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we've sent you or visit our Web site, we'll record it and link it to your Guest ID. We want to know everything we can."
That 'everything' is then used to try and convince you that Target is the only store you will ever need for anything you will ever buy. It's part of the 'predictive analytics' department that most retail outlets operate in an attempt to get to know as much about you as physically possible in order to sell you more and more stuff. Target has become particularly adept at this; using sophisticated algorithms and analyses, the store was even able to tell that a teen girl had become pregnant before her own father knew based on a pattern derived from what she bought over a period of time. Her dad only found out she was expecting after she received coupons for Target brand baby products in the mail.
It's one thing to save a few bucks, but when does profiling your every financial move in a store go too far?
Would you be surprised to learn that Target has a top-rated forensics lab that employs FBI-sponsored scientific working groups to solve shoplifting cases in its stores? Not only do these labs look like something straight out of an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, with researchers performing latent fingerprint analysis using high-tech computer forensics, but Target investigative scientists have also worked on homicide and felony cases for resource-strained law enforcement bureaus on the side.
Think about that next time you readily hand over all your personal data for a discount on socks.