Target’s Database Analysis Techniques & the Ethics Battle

by Tyler K
According to a recent article in the New York Times by Charles Duhigg, Target has managed to utilize its massive stores of information on their customer base to increase their Marketing Department’s power with new analysis techniques – including determining if a customer is pregnant, whether the customer wants the Corporation to know or not.  Essentially, the article goes on to explain how Target, “…has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores,” (Duhigg, 2012).  With every unique set of customer information, customers are given a unique ID, and from there, each purchase is scrutinized – what was bought, where and when it occurred, and how often these purchases happen.  A statistician that was interviewed by the writer of the article states that he was approached by the Marketing Department for Target, and together they created a set of indicators that would reveal, if purchased frequently enough or in conjunction with other key items, would imply that the customer might be expecting.  Since new parents have massive marketing potential, the company would then focus on sending coupons and advertisements to the expecting customer with baby products and other goods.  In one extreme instance, an enraged father entered a Target in an uproar that Target would be marketing baby products to his high-school daughter, only to apologize via phone a while later, stating, “ ‘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 apology’,” (Duhigg, 2012).

While the article is rather lengthy, only the first portion is applicable to the materials covered in class; the article directly mentions the usage of a primary key in the database (A unique customer ID given to each new customer), as well as the usage of several attributes and the usage of multivalued attributes (More than one type of item being ordered, etc.), as well as the implication of one-to-many relationship; where a customer can make many orders over time consisting of many different items.  Finally, CIS students might be able to picture a rough E-R Diagram as the article details what data Target is storing and what sort of information they intend to derive from it.

As a student looking to see what potential projects I might undertake in my future of working with DBMS and such, I was taken aback by the power that Target has at their fingertips.  Target literally can determine when a customer is pregnant before her own father did, imagine what other potential analyses can be performed in the near future, or may already be in place – utilization of birth dates to roughly know when to market going-away to college products, analysis of shopping habits to know what sort of lifestyle a customer leads (active – more sports & health products, sedentary – more entertainment products, etc.); essentially, this article opened my eyes to the potential that proper storage, usage, and analysis of massive amounts of data may have.  The future looks extremely interesting for Computer Information Systems students.

Works Cited
Duhigg, C. (2012, February 16). Magazine. . Retrieved from

4 thoughts on “Target’s Database Analysis Techniques & the Ethics Battle

  • April 8, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Interesting article. It is a bit scary to think about the type of information, and the amount, that can be obtained and stored by recording the things we purchase. Although it is something important to marketing and is an easy and accurate way to gather information about customers. It truly shows the power of information, and how important it is to store it efficiently and effectively.

  • April 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    There is a never ending battle with ethics and opinions on the matter. It becomes even more complicated once business corporations become involved. I understand that employers have the right to screen their employees, but constantly having them under a microscope doesn’t seem necessary in my opinion. There should be certain limitations and restrictions on the amount of data and information they employers can attain from their employees.

  • April 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    This article brings up a couple key points, but I am left wondering where the discussion of the ethics lies. The collection of customer data for marketing analysis is going to occur no matter what. How could it not if a company wants to stay modern, and keep on top of what is virtually free data that can be compiled by categorizing the purchases made?

    Each customer is given a unique ID number, but what other information is stored? Name? Address? Phone Number? Email address? Credit card info? These are important to consider given the recent rise in cyber crimes against large corporations like Sony.

  • April 8, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    I find this an interesting topic because it opens up a whole new can of worms in the world of ethics. I find the power of statistics and data incredible in the capitalistic world we live in these days. I am baffled at how a social networking site like facebook can grow to become a 100 billion dollar organization because of their unique way of collecting data and turning it into useful information that is so useful to companies that they will pay tons of money for it. It seems that Target has caught on is really utilizing information as a means for profitability. My mind is blown..

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