Did Target know you were pregnant before you told?

The New York Times Magazine recently ran an amazing story about how Target and other stores are analyzing every single purchase you make to predict what you might buy and how they can change your habits to purchase things you didn’t even know you needed.

The story by Charles Duhigg was adapted from his new book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” The article explains how people form habits and how companies use statistics to figure out what you’re likely to buy and what habits you have formed. They also use highly targeted marketing campaigns to entice you into changing your habits and purchase their products.

The article is nine screens long and I can only pull a little bit so you simply have to click on the link and read the ENTIRE article. It is well worth your time! Go on, read. I’ll wait and then we’ll discuss.

Here are some of the highlights from the article:

  • People buy out of habit. It’s hard to shake them from brands and places that they purchase. However, when customers are going through a major life change – like graduating from college, new job, new town, married or divorced or having a BABY, they are open to buying new things, new brands at new places. And if you can grab them then you’ll likely have them for life. (The author says it more eloquently than that.) The new parents in particular are gold mines.
  • Which leads us to Andrew Pole, a statistician who started working for Target in 2002. Pole figured out that by looking for certain combinations of products he could predict these gold mines, er I mean pregnant women.

“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.”

“Pole applied his program to every regular female shopper in Target’s national database and soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant. If they could entice those women or their husbands to visit Target and buy baby-related products, the company’s cue-routine-reward calculators could kick in and start pushing them to buy groceries, bathing suits, toys and clothing, as well. When Pole shared his list with the marketers, he said, they were ecstatic. Soon, Pole was getting invited to meetings above his paygrade. Eventually his paygrade went up.”

  • So what can Target and other stores do with the knowledge that you are in fact likely pregnant and due in August. Well they can start sending you coupons and ads for maternity clothes and diapers, among other things.

For example Target was sending pregnancy coupons to a teenage girl in Minnesota. The father came into complain but then later found out his teenage daughter was in fact actually pregnant. Target knew before he did!

But hey, isn’t that a little bit creepy? Do you want Target knowing this before you’ve started telling people?

“ ‘With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,’ the executive said. ‘Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.’ “

“ ‘And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.’ ”

  • So Target’s plan appears to be working. Between 2002 and 2010, Target’s revenues grew from $44 billion to $67 billion. “In 2005, the company’s president, Gregg Steinhafel, boasted to a room of investors about the company’s ‘heightened focus on items and categories that appeal to specific guest segments such as mom and baby.’ ”

I will say that Target is one of my favorite shopping experiences. (However, now I am creeped out.) I was in that baby boom between 2002 to 2010. I had two of my three in that time period and did start buying lots of clothes and groceries there (for convenience) along with my diapers, DVDs and toys.

I do hate being a forgone conclusion. And it seriously makes me rethink using my Target card even with the 5 percent off. I like the card because then I don’t have to keep up with receipts to return things. They make it easy for you to use the card so they can keep getting your info! (I’m figuring it all out now!)

The kicker to the story is the best. It’s a quote from Pole:

“Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.”

So what do you think? Are you surprised at the level in which your purchases are being analyzed? Are you bothered that someone is taking note of whether your moisturizer is scented or not?

Is it worth paying in cash so they don’t have ID for you? Are you happy to get the coupons that are actually for things you buy? Did you notice Target or other stores sending you pregnancy ads before you were out? Would you rather sign up like the Publix baby club or does that bother you too?

What do you make of the conclusion that if Target can get you after you’ve just had a baby you’ll stay with them for life and for many, many items?

Did you switch your consumption habits around the birth of your child?

46 comments Add your comment

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February 24th, 2012
1:42 am

They ask for your zip code to provide ones that match the products in your local Target and Printapons and other online sources. Be sure to check out the websites of your favorite products often has coupons

[...] Minnesota. The father came into complain but then later found out his teenage … Read more on Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) More Suggestions Were these people being rude to me? Ladies only please.? Is (US) maternity leave [...]


February 24th, 2012
6:04 am

It was a simple question. Which one of your children is the girl? They all look like boys to me. If this bothers you, then maybe you need therapy.

Mongo Smile

February 24th, 2012
6:08 am

HA HA HA!….They do!

Did Target predict the androgynous appearance of your children as well?


February 24th, 2012
6:15 am

puppet & Mongo Smile,

Is that really the best you can do? Take shots at someone’s children?
It must suck to be you…both of, or if your are the same sad sack hiding behind 2 handles and posting to yourself….anyway, I am glad that I didn’t turn out to be a creep like…well, you.


February 24th, 2012
6:39 am

All I have to say is…where are my coupons? I’m pregnant, and I want coupons. I really don’t care how or why a store gives them to me. Unfortunately, Target never picked up on me because I don’t buy lots of lotion, cotton balls, or hand sanitizer. However, I have registered at similac and enfamil sites, shopped at Babies R Us and took advantage of their great deals. I’ve gotten a lot of baby items at Walmart, too. Can I just write Target and ask them to send me baby coupons. I’m a ready and willing customer. Go ahead, send me a coupon, I just might use it.


February 24th, 2012
7:08 am

I don’t know if it makes a difference, but when asked for my zip code or phone number (especially the phone number) at a store, I always decline to give it.


February 24th, 2012
7:31 am

First, you are not part of this conversation. I was not asking you.
Next, I don’t know or care who or what Mongo is.
Finally, you can lick my


February 24th, 2012
7:32 am

I work for a beverage company that sells in grocery stores and the mass merchandise channel.

That Kroger Plus card? It’s a data harvesting scheme that easily ties together all of your purchasing habits.

But even without it, unless you pay cash – retailers can use your credit card information to help tie together your purchasing habits and learn your demographic data.

Unless you move off the grid and stop buying consumer packaged goods, just accept it! It’s really not that big a deal.

Angry Alfred

February 24th, 2012
8:01 am

No, but Target apparently found out my “EX” had Herpes before she bothered to tell me.


February 24th, 2012
8:05 am

We shop local and use cash only. I don’t shop at the “big box stores”, except the occasional run to Home Depot. I shop at Publix, but I use cash. We very rarely use any credit cards, except for LARGE purchases.

So no, Target didn’t know before I did.

Voice of Reason

February 24th, 2012
8:10 am

The only true way to keep companies from being able to study your personal shopping habits is to either live completely off of the grid (i.e. don’t use the Internet, credit cards, or personal checks) and just use cash to buy everything.

Also, when you see those annoying people standing in the mall with clipboards you will need to stay clear of them. When telemarketers call, just hang up.

Of course you could go the spy route and just change your name every couple of months.

Voice of Reason

February 24th, 2012
8:12 am

We need the ability to edit previous posts….


February 24th, 2012
8:15 am

I didn’t get the coupons. Probably because I am not a huge Target shopper. I do shop at Walmart a lit, but they haven’t sent anything. I am not surprised at anything these stores do. If I can save a buck though, I will tell them what they want to know if its not too personal.


February 24th, 2012
8:19 am


I couldn’t care less about your “conversation” on a very public blog, and I am inclined to say so…just ask the ladies here.
I just recognize a low life bully when I read one’s crap. That would be you.
Also, bullies tend to be weak and rotten to the core, especially when slapped down…like you again. Bullies take low shots at someone perceived as weaker than them…like you taking shots at someone’s children.
Hey…this seems to be a recurring theme fitting of a sock puppet. I guess I would be a puppet master.

K's Mom

February 24th, 2012
8:27 am

@SEE Babies R Us will begin sending you coupons frequently and if you are signed up for their rewards you will get $5-$10 in “free” money each month. I found that they were cheaper on everything but diaper genie refills than target. Also, if your baby uses Enfamil Lipil, the Babies R Us store brand is manufactured in the same facility and simply packaged differently. It is about $13/can vs. $25 for the Enfamil.

As for Target, I purchased pregnancy tests there on clearance last May and did not use them until Auugust…so I do not know what that did to their data!


February 24th, 2012
8:29 am

Go Shaggy, Go Shaggy!!!! Sic ‘em…


February 24th, 2012
8:34 am

I buy gift cards to Target from Kroger and to Kroger from Target.
Then I use the Target card purchased at Kroger to buy Publix cards.

I’m forcing the grid.

K's Mom

February 24th, 2012
8:42 am

@SEE, one more thing, do a registry at Target, BRU and BuyBuy Baby. Even if you only register for one thing at each store and do not let it be seen publically, you will get a gold mine in coupons after your due date and most of them can be used on high end brands that are generally excluded from regular brands. Yes, they collect info with the registries, but I have saved a ton of money from these programs and that is worth it for me.

K's Mom

February 24th, 2012
8:43 am

That should have said regular coupons not regular brands.


February 24th, 2012
9:12 am

Nope, Target didn’t figure it out. I don’t shop there regularly enough to give them the data they need. I have to drive by 3-4 other stores just to get to Target, so it’s a relatively rare trip. I’m on the baby, preschool, and pet lists for Publix, so I get coupons from them fairly regularly, plus the newspaper. I don’t care that Publix (or Walmart) collects data on what I buy – if it means they order what I want and/or send me coupons, then I’m all for it.


February 24th, 2012
9:12 am

No Target in the town we lived in when our son was born and I do not think this marketing concept was active 20 years ago, when I was pregnant here with our daughter.

I do get things in the mail from both Kroger and Publix. I LOVE A COUPON and sign up with several restaurants and they e-mail BOGO coupons to me regularly. Since there are two of us…we use them!

Can someone explain why folks hang out here to share foolish criticism about other posters? Disagreeing with someone or adamantly stating your point is one thing but attacking others, at every turn, WHAT?

As a teacher, the class clown gets old after a while. We hope for intelligence or at least thought provoking comments, which can lead to further discussion any day.


February 24th, 2012
9:13 am

All these companies with “reward” tags are tracking your purchases: Kroger, CVS, RiteAid, heck, even AutoZone has one! I shop at Target frequently b/c it’s the closest discount store near us. I’ve bought quite a few baby gifts even though my son is 16 so I’m always getting coupons for baby things at checkout. I don’t take offense to it- heck I’ve even purposely printed baby-related coupons on their site when I knew I was going to purchase a gift. I do however wish they’d pay attention to the amount of wine I buy there and start giving me those coupons! haha

K's mom

February 24th, 2012
9:19 am

@JOD…the Publix clubs are great! I have saved a bunch with those coupons.

I am not sure why folks are so offended by stores tracking purchases. I guess if you think too hard about it, it is a bit creepy, but so is sleeping in a hotel and I am not going to give up vacations. I have taken plenty of market research classes and collecting data does help the stores, but it also helps me save money and helps to create a shopping environment that is suited to me and my family!

Voice of Reason

February 24th, 2012
9:22 am

And then there are those times when they completely screw up the demographics like when they send me information about joining AARP.

I’m 34.


February 24th, 2012
9:27 am

why are people so oversensitive these days, it’s not that deep nor is it a big deal. I like getting coupons for things that I buy on the regular…we are all being tracked in one form or another. you overly grown adults whine too much, pick and choose your battles…this is not worth getting upset over. TRUST!


February 24th, 2012
9:27 am

MJG–well said!


February 24th, 2012
9:39 am


@melissa, I am fine with getting my name on lists but TRUST can be more difficult for me as I have been burned many times and then OH SORRY! The older I get, it is perhaps harder to TRUST. That is just me.

I like this quote:
To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.


February 24th, 2012
9:42 am

if you use YOUR credit card, not the target card, they are still tracking you and you can still return stuff without a receipt.
I tried to give different zip codes – but they tie it to the credit card and if it’s not the right one, I’ve had the card declined.


February 24th, 2012
9:48 am

I do hate being a forgone conclusion.

Is it really a problem that businesses try to provide customers with things they need? I’d rather get coupons for useful things than stuff I know I don’t want. They offered the stuff you don’t need, just to make you fell better about your (false sense of) privacy.

Once the government pushed social security numbers for infants, it was clear that the privacy genie will never get back in the bottle. As far as the creepiness of the data that is out there…have you ever seen Enemy of the State or Minority Report? There is a lot of data available on people. Some businesses (like Target) understand how to use it.

At the end of the day, these tactics can get your attention, but if you don’t like the product, then coupons & ads won’t help.


February 24th, 2012
9:54 am

@ atlmom1…forgive me for my ignorance but isn’t giving the correct zip code with a credit card a protection that you are using your own card? If someone had my card and gave a wrong zip code, I would want the card declined!

“While I admire your perspective, unfortunately it isn’t realistic.” Maybe not for a blog but it is realistic in the classroom…catlady and I have at least 60 years experience combined. I typically use analogies that involve things I have experience in. This is really the only blog that I hang out on, so I do not know what is happening elsewhere.


February 24th, 2012
9:56 am

@Voice – No kidding. I get catalogs with products to ‘keep you in your home longer.’ I’m 33. I don’t need a handle to help me get in and out of the bathtub, an elevated toilet seat, or an elevator seat for the stairs :o)

Jame Gumb

February 24th, 2012
9:58 am

All I ever buy at Target is lotion and baskets but they keep sending me coupons for sewing supplies. Weird, am I right?


February 24th, 2012
10:03 am

Even what you look up on the internet (like vacation plans) is tracked. In fact one of the top 3 data/information houses in the country has that along with just about everything else about you.


February 24th, 2012
10:23 am

I used to get tons of coupons for years in the mail when I wasn’t pregnant. I’d get coupons for diapers, formula, free samples of formula and all manner of toys and things. These weren’t just from Target though, but from everywhere. ToysRUs, BabiesRUs, the manufacturers, etc. Then when I got pregnant last year, all the coupons stopped coming. Figures, right!!!


February 24th, 2012
10:37 am

Kroger sends out two mailings. The first is a generic mailing sent to everyone (such as the recent Daytona 500 related coupons) and then a mailing that is geared to our family based on our shoppers card. Of the 20 or so coupons included in the mailing, I would guess that we can use almost all of them because they are things that we are purchasing anyway. Getting coupons for things that we would purchase anyway-why wouldn’t I like that?

[...] An excerpt from the article, “Did Target know you were pregnant before you told? – Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)” can be found below. Please read the entire article at this link: Did Target know you were pregnant before you told? – Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog). [...]


February 24th, 2012
10:45 am

@MJG..if you notice, many stores ask for your zip code regardless of how you are paying. This is for tracking and marketing. It is different than when you are asked for your zip code when you are paying with a credit card. In fact,the only time I ever get asked for my zip with my credit card is at the gas pump.
I don’t care if they track what I buy and send me coupons. I love when I get coupons at Kroger for things that I just bought or similar items. They are always the best coupons. Now if I could just remember to hold onto them….
Anyway, I have a bigger problem with Facebook telling everybody about an article I just read when I never shared that information. What’s up with that?


February 24th, 2012
10:56 am

I don’t like it when they ask for your phone number at the check out. I refuse to give my number out. And if they ask for a zip code, I make one up…..


February 24th, 2012
11:23 am

@homeschooler, yes…I do know this as I shop across the country and they are amazed at my zip code, since they have typically not heard of it, say in ND or MT. I read that atlmom1’s credit card was declined, with the wrong zip code and I did not see her mention a gas station but perhaps that is what she meant. Sorry for the confusion.


February 24th, 2012
6:55 pm

I work in marketing, though not for a retail store.

Store cards (credit or discount cards) are not required for tracking, so avoiding them won’t help. They can track you also with any credit card or a check. Not telling your zip code doesn’t matter either. All the zip does (if not required for card verification) is slightly improve the match accuracy to other consumer databases that tie in things like your estimated age range, income, etc.

It’s done by most large businesses. But ultimately it’s all just a best guess about what you might do or buy. The profiling can be wrong. The assumptions can be wrong. If they’re right, all that happens is you get a coupon or a mailing you actually want. And businesses use the data to determine new locations, what products to stock, product problems, etc.

From a marketing information standpoint, nobody cares about you – not as an actual individual. Your records are not viewed by human beings on some individual basis. You’re just one of tens of millions of records in a database, only useful as part of a set.


February 24th, 2012
7:43 pm

“Great” work, what, a week after the story broke pretty much everywhere.

We The Podcast

February 24th, 2012
9:47 pm


February 27th, 2012
12:38 pm

I get ads for baby stuff all the time. If it’s because of what I buy “baby-wise” such as kids’ bubble bath, etc., they are barking up the wrong tree. I don’t need cribs, wipes, and so forth. It seems that with minimal marketing though, they are reaching a lot of people, so more power to them. I just leave my unwanted coupons in the baby section for a mom that needs to use them. When they do, I just get more coupons for the same. Whatever.

When I go to Bed, Bath and Beyond, I usually offer a coupon or two to the people behind me so that (besides good karma), they will continue to send me coupons. I usually have 10 or 12 around all the time. Since they don’t expire, I can do that. But, to ensure I keep getting them, I keep them in motion when I can.

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