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Surveys often provide feedback about product performance, consumer likes and dislikes, and levels of satisfaction. But the companies that build these surveys must be absolutely meticulous in their design to ensure the questions get interpreted correctly and the results are accurate. A recent e-mail survey created by the research firm Nielsen/NetRatings for Target reveals what happens when the survey fails to follow those criteria.

The survey was intended to compare Target and Wal-Mart shoppers, but Target’s customers expressed a great deal of discomfort with  the questions being asked. Initially, they seemed fine, asking whether respondents shopped at Wal-Mart or Target and which retailer received a large share of their budget. But then the questions moved on to the type of car the respondent drove, and then fired off psychological questions including, “My partner is likely to reject me at some point unless I am better than any other potential mate” and “I could disappear from the face of the Earth and no one would notice.” Uncomfortable customers and Target quickly forced Nielsen to cancel the survey.

This incident highlights the challenge of determining what questions are acceptable, and which are not, to ask customers. Many surveys include questions that seem unrelated to the in-store experience and instead probe psychological attitudes. But this survey proved to Nielsen that it had gone too far in invading customers’ privacy boundaries.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you think that these questions were invasive and inappropriate for a survey given to a retailer’s customers?

2. What kind of questions are appropriate for gathering psychological data?

Doris Hajweski, “Target Pulls Plug on Psych Survey,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 11, 2007.