Target to require retinal scans and DNA samples of all in-store customers

Okay, maybe not yet. But we’re definitely getting there. Check out today’s two-part gotcha.

Part 1: Back in 2008 I wrote a piece called “The Smartest Shopping Cart That Ever Lived,” a glimpse into the near-future of GPS meets RFID meets customer relationship management meets intelligent supply chain meets nosy retailer shopping experience. I invoked Minority Report in doing so – remember Tom Cruise trying to get through that mall without being skinned alive?

Of course, as is so often the case when it comes to predicting the future these days, I was way too conservative. Check this item, from the Not-Science-Fiction-At-All Files.

An angry man went into a Target outside of Minneapolis, demanding to talk to a manager:

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an


Imagine that. The store she shopped at figured out she was pregnant and informed her family before she did. That’s pretty great, huh?

What Target discovered fairly quickly is that it creeped people out that the company knew about their pregnancies in advance.

“If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” Pole told me. “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”

I’m not naïve about retailers and their use of data to customize their marketing – heck, I used to work for one of the companies that helped pioneer online CRM tactics. Most companies of any significance are doing it and, like many others, I’m deeply concerned about the privacy implications. Whenever a company tells you that the data they’re collecting is only for evaluating collective trends and isn’t applied personally, they’re lying. Even if they aren’t lying, you should assume they’re lying.

In brief, though, how does Target do it? How does Target know a woman is pregnant before her friends and family?

Target assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources. Using that, Pole looked at historical buying data for all the ladies who had signed up for Target baby registries in the past. From the NYT:

[Pole] 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.

Or have a rather nasty infection…

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.

And perhaps that it’s a boy based on the color of that rug?

Got that? Not only does the store you shop at know you’re pregnant, it knows when you’re due. Really, you should take a few minutes to read the entire NY Times feature from which the story above was extracted. And you should note that Target corporate slammed the lid on their stat guru when they realized he was talking to a reporter. I can only imagine the closed door meetings, the executive rantings and the internal memos that have flown around the company since this story broke.

Part 2: All this struck me as predictable and, from a professional perspective, interesting. Until yesterday, when it got annoying. I was doing some online snooping, checking a variety of retailers for the price and availability of an item that I want (but am unlikely to buy – still, I like to pretend shop sometimes). I figured Target was likely to have some version of the item, and probably at a lower price point, so I clicked over to investigate.

Then something funny happened.

My cookies are enabled, so I hit continue. The error pops up again.

Aha. I know what’s going on. I recently installed Ghostery on my computer. (You should think about doing the same.)

Ghostery is your window into the invisible web – tags, web bugs, pixels and beacons that are included on web pages in order to get an idea of your online behavior.

Ghostery tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity.

And it lets you block these intrusive measures, which is especially nice. Except that Target don’t play dat. Apparently, they not only use their Web site to collect all kinds of data about you so that their statisticians can figure out things about you that your best friends don’t even know, they’re not going to let you use their Web site unless you play along. It’s like TSA, only with prettier pictures. Sorry, ma’am, we have to perform a cavity search before you’re allowed to window shop. Store policy.

Just to double check, I went into my Ghostery settings and turned off bug blocking. Then I went back to the Target site hit continue. I was welcomed right in, as expected.

I suppose, in beneficent hands, this sort of technology could actually be of some use to society. For instance, what if you hooked all of Target’s insight up to a next-generation medical records database – could someone’s purchasing habits reliably predict the onset of diabetes in time to prevent it? Maybe, but Target isn’t your local organic health-food grocer, so they’d have a financial disincentive to do anything that might steer the consumer away from all those shelves of high-fructose corn syrup goodies.

So never mind. It was just a thought.

Meanwhile, I need to see if Target’s refusal to do online business with people who refuse to share intimate details extends to the actual in-store experience. Later this afternoon I think I’ll wander down to one of their stores and see if a DNA sample is required to enter.


  • Time to start doing like my dad and using cash only. He won’t shop at those stores that require a card to get the sale price either.

  • @ Robert – this is 2012. Recent advances in facial recognition and high altitude surveillance will soon render cash moot, as an anonymizer. Why do you need a magnetic strip to identify you when cheap digital storage and high quality image recognition will do the trick? Digital capitalism’s dream is like a Star Trek tricorder wired to a credit card swiper. Someday they’ll know what you want before you do.

  • Pingback: Dear commenter: there aren’t really any unicorns on rocket ships flying out of my ass | Scholars and Rogues

  • Saw the mention of Ghostery and had to chime in on this. Online security is my trade. Ghostery is a great way to scare the pants off anyone using the Internet. I love it myself, but tend not to recommend it to my users. Some of them would never return!

    If you are looking to be safer, while not wetting your pants in fear, try the following add-ons to Firefox or Chrome:
    – HTTPS Everywhere
    – NoScript (on Firefox, for the bold only. It takes some fine tuning)
    – ScriptNo (Same as above, but for Chrome)

    Some will also recommend running an ad blocker. I’m torn on this. Ads have been used recently as vectors for running malicious code on users systems, BUT ad revenue is what allows the content to remain free… Follow your conscience on it I guess. I recommend AdBlock Plus to those who ask.

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