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Where do you go to buy paper towels? How about a new shirt? What kind of store do you visit when you are thirsty for a carbonated beverage? Chances are that the stores you mentioned differ in each case, even though all of those products can be found in stores such as Target or Walmart. The reason is that people’s brains are wired to conserve energy, and they do so by developing habits and patterns of behavior. Thus, if you tend to buy soda at the local convenience store, doing so becomes a habit, and that’s where you go every time you feel thirsty.

Such habitual behaviors are both a boon and a bane for marketers. For the grocery store where you buy paper towels, it’s great; it will keep getting your business. But how can competitive retailers get you to change your pattern? In most cases, the answer is that they can’t. However, in certain moments in people’s lives, they are more open to new influences, such as when they move, when they get married or—perhaps most notably—when they have a baby.

Marketers have learned these lessons well, and in some cases, the question is whether they have learned it too well. Target determined that when women are in their second trimester of a pregnancy, they tend to buy more unscented lotion and soap, larger bags of cotton balls, and more zinc supplements. In turn, it began sending advertisements and offers for diapers and cribs to women who bought such items, according to its databases. Instead of buying more though, many women responded by describing how creepy it was for Target to know they were pregnant before they had even said anything. For one pregnant teenager, Target’s marketing moves made for a very awkward conversation with her parents.

Although Target’s efforts were notable, because of their effectiveness with this target market, the retailer is far from the only one to study habitual behaviors. Politicians consider how to change habits to get more voters to come to the polls. Tony Dungy used this science to determine how linemen responded to on-field cues, then changed their habits and helped his team win the Super Bowl.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does market research reveal consumers’ habitual behaviors?
  2. Discuss the ethics of such market research.

Source: Charles Duhigg, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” The New York Times, February 16, 2012