The trick is to know the right questions

A few years ago, a man went into a Target supermarket in Minneapolis to complain to the manager, because the store had sent his teenage daughter a personalised leaflet packed with coupons for maternity clothing, nursery furniture, baby clothes and other maternity offers.

‘My daughter’s still in school’, the man said, angrily. ‘What are you trying to do: encourage her to get pregnant?’ The manager apologised profusely for what was clearly a mistake.

A week later, the man spoke to the manager again: this time, to apologise himself. It turned out his daughter had been pregnant, after all – she just hadn’t told him.

So how did Target’s mail-personalisation system know she was pregnant before her own father did? The answer: a statistician named Andrew Pole.

Pole’s job was to analyse customer data, to find patterns that could grow Target’s sales. He realised the most likely time to change customer shopping habits was during lifestyle changes: graduation, moving jobs, moving house, marriage, divorce and, especially, having a baby.

If you can get a pregnant customer to buy their baby goods from you, they’ll buy everything else from you too, because convenience is paramount. But, if you wait till after the baby is born, they’ll be inundated with offers from other stores and you’ll probably lose them.

So the trick is to know they’re pregnant before anyone else does.

Pole analysed the purchasing patterns of thousands of pregnant customers to identify telltale changes: for instance, switching to non-scented soap, buying calcium and zinc supplements and large packs of cotton balls. When customers started showing this behaviour, they’d be sent money-off vouchers for maternity items (just as the man’s daughter had been).

The result was that millions of pregnant women began spending a lot more money in Target. The same thing happened when Pole analysed other lifestyle triggers. By 2010, his analysis had helped to grow Target’s sales by over 50%.

What’s interesting about this is that everybody else had access to the same information Pole had. They all had the answers in front of them.

But he was the only one asking the right questions.

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