People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event

Thursday, May 6th, 2021

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains just how much data a store like Target collects in order to shift customers’ buying habits:

Also linked to that Guest ID number was demographic information that Target collected or purchased from other firms, including the shopper’s age, whether they were married and had kids, which part of town they lived in, how long it took them to drive to the store, an estimate of how much money they earned, if they’d moved recently, which websites they visited, the credit cards they carried in their wallet, and their home and mobile phone numbers. Target can purchase data that indicates a shopper’s ethnicity, their job history, what magazines they read, if they have ever declared bankruptcy, the year they bought (or lost) their house, where they went to college or graduate school, and whether they prefer certain brands of coffee, toilet paper, cereal, or applesauce.


The company can link about half of all in-store sales to a specific person, almost all online sales, and about a quarter of online browsing.


People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. When someone gets married, for example, they’re more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When they move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they get divorced, there’s a higher chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.


There’s almost no greater upheaval for most customers than the arrival of a child. As a result, new parents’ habits are more flexible at that moment than at almost any other period in an adult’s life. So for companies, pregnant women are gold mines.


One survey conducted in 2010 estimated that the average parent spends $6,800 on baby items before a child’s first birthday.


“As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else, too,” Pole told me.


One New York hospital, for instance, provides every new mother with a gift bag containing samples of hair gel, face wash, shaving cream, an energy bar, shampoo, and a soft-cotton T-shirt. Inside are coupons for an online photo service, hand soap, and a local gym. There are also samples of diapers and baby lotions, but they’re lost among the nonbaby supplies. In 580 hospitals across the United States, new mothers get gifts from the Walt Disney Company, which in 2010 started a division specifically aimed at marketing to the parents of infants.


Disney estimates the North American new baby market is worth $36.3 billion a year.


Expectant mothers, he discovered, shopped in fairly predictable ways. Take, for example, lotions. Lots of people buy lotion, but a Target data analyst noticed that women on the baby registry were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester.

Another analyst noted that sometime in the first twenty weeks, many pregnant women loaded up on vitamins, such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Lots of shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls every month, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and an astounding number of washcloths, all at once, a few months after buying lotions and magnesium and zinc, it signals they are getting close to their delivery date.


  1. Handle says:

    Some “the power of habit” but more “the power of privacy-crushing corporate panopticon surveillance and big data analytics”.

    “Facebook knows that when it eavesdrops on your smartphone mic that you said ‘I think Facebook is eavesdropping on me’, that 60% of the time you can be distracted by a pizza discount coupon.”

  2. Kirk says:

    The one I absolutely loved was a sorta-kinda ugly family situation that some acquaintances went through.

    Out of the blue, they started getting all the “expectant/new mother” mailings and all the rest, and they couldn’t figure out why. Mom had had a hysterectomy after her last kid, and there was no way possible that they were gonna have that fourth child.

    What it turned out to be was that their 14-yo daughter was the one that was pregnant, and the marketing algorithms had picked up on it all before she or her parents figured it out, all apparently based on what the poor kid was buying down at the local grocery. Even she wasn’t too sure about the pregnancy, but the algorithms were certain enough that they started sending out the usual package of stuff.

    As for our underage mother, whole thing ended reasonably well. Wasn’t a date rape, child molestation, or anything like that, just two hyperfertile kids experimenting, and she turns out to have been someone who didn’t respond well to birth control. Almost a funny story, and a really good example of why it’s best not to try and hide this kind of thing–They’re raising the kid as hers, openly, but her parents are doing rather more of the job than she is, at this point.

  3. Kirk says:

    Oh, and a thing to consider: The panopticon works only because the data they gather is reasonably accurate, and the unwitting participants are cooperating by providing said data.

    What, do you suppose, happens when that vast market starts actively “jamming the signal”? If your panopticon isn’t telling you the truth reliably, what good is it?

    I think the biggest secret in marketing is likely the sheer unreliability of it all. They sell certainty to their customers, the corporations, but what do you suppose happens if those corporations discover that they can’t rely on the data which underlies it all?

    Right now, they’re living in their golden age. Wait until some Banksy-esque culture-jammer starts gaming the system, and instead of people putting in their phone numbers or affinity cards, they start providing false identities? What happens if someone hacks the system, and subtly scrambles the data stream sailing into the marketers for Proctor-Gamble from Safeway, and instead of getting the information that says “Detergent ‘A’ isn’t selling”, they get told that everybody wants it, and make production decisions accordingly?

    How long is your panopticon viable, in such situations?

    There’s a point of diminishing returns with all this crap, from mass-market advertising to the fine-grain detailed stuff like the panopticon. It gets too intrusive, too annoying, and too inaccurate, then it becomes just a part of the background noise for the public, and then its value goes away.

    I think you’re going to start seeing a lot more of this become very apparent in the general political realm in the near future–When everyone is a “racist”, the corollary is that “racist” no longer becomes the charged term it was. Charge every Republican president with being Hitler, and what happens? The “Hitler idea” loses its power.

    Advertising and marketing all have their limits. Same with propaganda–If you look at the end-stage for the Soviet Union, what was the common thing that everyone noted? The utter lack of authority and power that propaganda and “political agitation” had. Where people went to their Party meetings back in the 1930s with utter sincerity and fervor, by the 1980s it was all a pro-forma thing without real meaning or belief. Everyone was jaded, nobody believed the bullshit.

    Advertising and media here in America are about to run up against that hard stop, and a similar crack-up is going to occur. Lincoln’s aphorism about fooling some of the people all of the time while being unable to fool all the people all of the time…? Yeah; that.

  4. Jim says:

    Hey, Kirk, how does “that vast market” start “jamming the signal” when the Benevolent Corporate Overlord cultivates a dossier containing a record of every item that you have ever purchased from it, all known video- and audio-graphic recordings of you, and your complete biometrics, and sells and shares for fun and profit that dossier and its inferences with its peer Benevolent Corporate Overlords — to say nothing of Shadowy Data Brokers?

    What are you going to do, change your gait?

  5. Kirk says:


    You vastly underestimate the human capacity for munging things up. Seriously…

    Case in point: Someone has been using my dead father’s Safeway affinity card for purchasing and using the resultant gas rewards all across the US. No idea who, either.

    Also, examine how “accurate” the caller ID on your cell phone is–Nine times out of ten, the data is completely bonkers, and utterly useless. Why? Because the people using these Caller ID apps are putting in the personal names of their friends and acquaintances when they input a number for a business or some government agency. So, when the app goes to look at what ID is tagged to that number, it reports “Ted” as what is actually the local hardware store.

    Garbage in, garbage out. And, the more data there is, the less reliable it becomes. You think it’s telling you something, but the reality is that the data you think is connected to a specific number connected to a specific set of demographics in rural Washington state is actually being generated by someone in Colorado…? What good does that information do you?

    And, let us not even begin to think about the state of affairs when people start actively screwing with things. Right now, at the dawn of the era, it all looks golden and bright. Once these databases become targets for hackers to have some fun…? LOL. Shit, these companies can’t even keep credit card data secure; what happens when some goofball decides to make every menopausal woman in the country look like a new mother…?

    The panopticon only works when there’s insufficient incentive to screw with the inputs. China’s “Social Credit” schemes are no doubt being suborned and rendered useless as we speak, because that’s what humans do. Same thing is going to happen here; the more control you reach for, the less you actually get, with less and less result every time.

    Look at old-school advertising in the magazines and other archival sources. Note how simplistic it is, how ineffectual it would be today; would any of that BS work on a modern “consumer”?

    There’s an arms race between the marketers and the mindframe of their victims; as they get more and more subtle and cunning, the victims wise up more and more. Where that ends? Mult-million dollar campaigns resulting in minimal sales.

    End state of all this? None of it’s gonna work; the advertisers are going to find that it’d make more sense to pay the “consumer” to buy their products.

    It’s like FakeBuch and all the rest; once the public realizes that they’re the product, all that free data won’t be free, and FakeBuch is gonna have to start paying people to be “engaged”.

    At some point, the public is going to finally figure out that their data is worth money, and then they’re gonna demand their cut. Also, the advertisers will figure that out, as well–If someone were to say “Yeah, we’re gonna subsidize your phone bill and cell phone expenses, so long as you listen to X minutes of ads every billing period…”, well… Yeah, I’d be up for not hanging up and cursing every telemarketer that called me. I’d also be a lot more likely to be a happy bill-payer every month to avoid that crap. One of these days, the system will figure that out, and react accordingly. As it is, all they’re doing is pissing the customer base off more and more.

    As I told the last asshole who called me up during the middle of dinner preparation, all that phone call did was establish who I wasn’t voting for, in the next election. Strangely enough, I stopped getting calls from that candidate…

    For about the last century, the advertisers have been working in “green fields”, so to speak. What they’ve really accomplished in that period is to turn those green fields into over-developed plains of BS that nobody wants to be in, at all. Once you reach saturation level in the commons, all you’re really doing is pissing off the customer base, and ensuring that they’ll never, ever buy your product.

    Time was, the Fuller Brush man and the vacuum cleaner salesman could get a foot in the average door. Nowadays…? LOL… Last guy I know who tried that door-to-door game? He told me he’d been assaulted about a half-dozen times a month, and not even the police gave a damn. That’s what happens in a “mature” marketing atmosphere…

  6. Jim says:

    Your argument appears to be that marketing doesn’t and can’t work because the tools and techniques of the overlords are, or will be, outpaced by the natural habituation of the average dumb schmuck. Look around, dumb guy. Is there any sign of this happening?


    More importantly, you have conveniently sidestepped the Biometric Question. Your phone number is unique to you, but it is not a property of your physical person. Your face, voice, and gait are all properties of your physical person: unique to you, non-concealable, and, from the perspective of the biometrician — that is, the incorporeal entity wielding the biometrical apparatus for commercial advantage — invariant over the course of your lifetime.

    In the harsh light of the BQ, your pervasive yet implicit “institutional incompetence” argument is as limp and shriveled as the manhood of a childhood castrato, because, ultimately, you suffer the same problem as the eternal libertarian: seeing what you believe to be incompetence, and seeing how you could do it better, you fail to stop and ask the only question that matters: done differently, would the company make less money?


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