The amount of data collected about customers is so vast, and the resulting analysis so powerful, that companies can determine which of their customers may be pregnant and which aren’t. Earlier in 2012, a major retailer unknowingly informed a father that his teenage daughter was pregnant – based on her recent purchases matching a trend of other expecting mothers – long before she had planned to share the news (Forbes, 2012).
Shoppers are frequently asked for their zip code while paying for items. Have you ever wondered why this is? Based on the content of this chapter, you can probably wager a pretty good guess. That’s right: the store or, more correctly, the company who owns the store, uses this information to pair places with purchases. This helps companies determine regional trends to see which items sell best in certain locations, deliver ads targeted for certain areas, and analyze the habits and characteristics of their customers. Analysis of this kind is a major component of modern business practices and helps increase efficiency, customer satisfaction, and overall sales. It can also lead to some very surprised customers, as we’ve seen in the example above.
Customer addresses can also be harvested from automobile license plates. Business owners pay to record license plate numbers of cars parked in their parking lots or in their competitors' lots. Addresses of registered owners can be purchased from organizations that acquire motor vehicle records from state departments of transportation. These addresses are used to identify trade areas, or the locations in which their customers live and work. Companies can then target their trade areas, or their competitors’ trade areas, with direct mail advertising or match their products and prices to the socio-economic characteristics of the local population.
Data of this type is also collected by popular websites who track their visitors; this happens frequently without the users’ knowledge. Chapter 1 discussed how Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) use locations to determine the closest server in order to speed up the load times of websites. When combined with the ads users click, the products users mention in status updates, and the “likes” made across popular social networking sites, geocoded data enables companies to analyze and discover a great deal of information about their users. Individual surfing habits and preferences are also collected behind the scenes via ‘cookies,’ which are small files stored by your web browser that allow one site to save and read information that was created when you viewed previous sites.