On being ... in the loop

by Ingrid Sapona

A recent segment on The Colbert Report brought to my attention a fascinating New York Times Magazine article titled: “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” by Charles Duhigg. The article is ostensibly about the extent of the data companies gather about customers, the conclusions they can deduce from the data, and how they strategically use what they know about customers to market to them.

The anecdote Colbert picked up on was about an angry man who went into his local Target and demanded to see the manager. Waiving coupons for baby clothes and cribs the company sent his high school-age daughter, he accused Target of trying to encourage her to get pregnant. After looking at the mailer containing ads for maternity clothes, nursery furniture, etc., and confirming that it was addressed to the guy’s daughter, the manager apologized.

A few days later, when the store manager called to apologize again, the embarrassed customer offered up his own apology. Apparently, since the time of his tirade, he found out something he was unaware of at the time of his coupon-wielding visit: that his daughter is expecting. As unbelievable as it may sound, Target had deduced this from its data. It seems Target can determine when to alert the stork by analyzing purchases of a about 25 products (and we’re not talking about things like maternity wear -- we’re talking about things like calcium, magnesium, and zinc supplements and unscented lotion).

Target is interested in figuring out when customers are pregnant because shopping habits are in a rare state of flux around the time you have a baby. And, because shopping habits are so ingrained, retailers are keen to try to convert you while you’re in this state of flux. Your shopping habits are also a target (pardon the pun) for conversion when you’re going through other major life events, like graduating from college, getting a new job, getting married or divorced, and moving.

Beyond the stuff about how retailers gather and use data to market, the article’s information about habits and how they’re formed is fascinating. Some estimate that 45% of the choices we make every day are the result of habit, rather than conscious decision-making. Scientists believe habits are created through a process (dubbed the habit loop) that involves a cue, routine, and a reward. The cue is what triggers your brain to go into automatic mode; the reward is what helps your brain decide a loop is worth remembering for future use.

So, by identifying the cues and rewards, you can take steps to control or change the habit. But, cues can be subtle. Something as seemingly insignificant as putting on your sneakers before breakfast, or leaving your running clothes next to your bed, can be a cue that triggers the habit loop for jogging in the morning. When I read that, a light went off in my head. Awhile back I noticed that if I don’t put on my workout clothes first thing in the morning, I find more excuses not to go to the gym. So my clothes are the cue in a habit loop that triggers working out? Amazing… (Maybe I should just start sleeping in my workout clothes!)

After reading the article I decided to become my own data mining analyst, trying to figure out the many cues that trigger the habit loops that fill my day. Boy are there a lot! Some are positive (like flicking on the coffee pot and then making my bed while it brews) and some are not (like having a cookie with my morning coffee).

The article also talks about ways of changing habits. Though it might seem obvious that changing the cue or reward will help, if you want a change in behaviour to stick, you have to change the routine part of the loop. Sounds daunting, I know. But, the marketing geniuses have figured out a method to apply for doing that too. It involves figuring out how to piggyback on an existing habit, which amounts to altering the routine part of a habit loop.

When Febreze was introduced, Proctor & Gamble marketed it as something you use to eliminate unwanted odors. When sales for the product went from bad to worse, P&G’s behaviour analysis machine swung into overdrive. After extensive research, P&G realized that instead of trying to get customers to adopt a whole new habit of using Febreze, they simply needed to get folks to use it as part of their cleaning routine. Once they did that, sales skyrocketed.

I decided to test this method and my morning cookie habit was an ideal candidate for change. At first I thought the cue was the coffee. But when I noticed that some mornings, by the time I got the newspaper, turned on the t.v., and settled into my favourite spot, I’d already nearly finished that first cup before I took my first bite of the cookie. That’s when I realized the cue is the setting -- the comfy spot I settled into every morning before starting on work.

So, for a few mornings I decided that instead of drinking my first cup of coffee in my usual spot, I’d drink it while checking e-mail instead. When I was done with e-mails, I’d pour my second cup and head into the living room to enjoy the newspaper and morning show. Sure enough, by the time I poured the second cup, my craving for a cookie was gone. I tell you, varying the routine is a heck of a lot easier than using willpower to avoid the cookie.

Target’s not yet in Canada -- they’re opening here in 2013. When they get here, I’ll be watching my Target mailings like a hawk for hints about my behaviour that they’ve deduced. Meanwhile, I’ve set a goal of being at least as aware of my habit loops as they seem determined to be.

What about you? No hidden messages from Target in your mailbox, I hope…

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... the day after

By Ingrid Sapona

So, today’s the day after Valentine’s, which means the bonbons are half gone, the champagne’s gone flat, and the first petals are about ready to fall off the flowers. Or, for some, it means it’s time to get on with St. Patty’s Day plans.

But I say: not so fast! Though many claim Valentine’s Day is just a “Hallmark Holiday”, a few Valentine’s-themed stories I came across this week provided thoughtful reminders that happiness is related to the effort and care we put into all our interactions with others.

The first item that made me reflect on this was an ethics column in the Saturday Toronto Star. The column was basically about showing respect for others. In his column a couple weeks ago, the ethics columnist addressed a question sent in by a couple who are in their mid-80s and who are retired physicians. They asked the columnist if they should “confront” their new, young doctor to let her know they were offended by the fact that she (and the nurse) addressed them by their first names.

The columnist’s take on it was that there are different schools of thought on the issue of addressing folks by honourifics (in this case: Dr.) and he sees no reason to be offended by their new doctor’s failure to address them as Dr. X. The columnist ended by advising them that if they’d be more comfortable being addressed in some other way, they should speak to their doctor about it, but he sees no reason to “confront” her.

Apparently a number of readers vehemently disagreed and they wrote in about it. Most felt the young doctor should be deferential to the couple’s senior status and they thought she should refer to them as Mr. and Mrs. X. Interestingly, most readers didn’t object to the doctor’s failure to address the retired physicians by the honourific, which was the point made in the original column. Instead, they focused on the respect they feel is owed to the couple because of their age. The columnist disagreed with the readers on this too, saying he thinks it’s disrespectful when we define people as old, rather as people. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always believed all people deserve respect, regardless of their education, achievement, status, or age.

The question was, of course, what’s the appropriate way of showing respect in this circumstance. I doubt very much that the young doctor intended anything by the way she addressed her new patients. But, if her patients mention their discomfort to her, I hope she has the grace to realize that the truest respect is that which is given in a manner that the person receiving it appreciates, not merely in a manner that you think is sufficient.

Another column from the Saturday Star clearly written with Valentine’s Day celebrations in mind that got me thinking was in a relationship column by a guy and aimed at guys. This one was ostensibly about the “thorny” problem (pun clearly intended by the headline writer) presented when “The Rose Guy” saunters up to a couple at a restaurant in hopes of selling the man a rose for his dining companion. The columnist decried this as the classic no-win situation for the man.

As the columnist sees it, the guy either pays what amounts to an extortionist’s fee for the nearly-wilted rose, or he waves the guy off and looks to the woman -- and to all the nearby diners -- like a cheapskate who (paraphrasing an infamous line from Sex and the City) is just not that into his dining companion. To be honest, I agreed with the columnist -- until I read what a woman he apparently discussed the matter with said.

The woman said she thinks it’s a no brainer -- the guy should always buy the rose. Her reasoning goes like this: if the guy doesn’t, he’s losing an opportunity. As she sees it, The Rose Guy isn’t offering roses at all. So, when you buy the rose, you’re buying a memory and that, she points out, is priceless. I’ve got to say, I think she’s right. After all, it’s the gesture that will make the evening memorable -- and that memory will definitely outlast the flower.

The last story is a true Valentine’s Day story -- one that hits closer it home. My mother likes this one brand of truffles and my father used to keep a stockpile of wrapped boxes of those truffles in his closet. We each got one for every holiday. But the cutest thing was he’d often slip us one as we were leaving after a visit home. Those boxes were a tangible reminder of his sweetness and love.

Well, the other day one of my sisters was in the store and among the chocolates wrapped for Valentine’s Day she saw a box of those truffles. She confessed to me that when she saw them, she couldn’t resist -- she bought herself a box for Valentine’s Day because they reminded her of Dad. I had to laugh when she told me the story because it so happened that when Mom and I were shopping together this past weekend we saw a box of the truffles and we couldn’t resist them either! The relationship lesson here is simple: little gestures can create lasting memories of those we love.

So, though Valentine’s Day is officially behind us, I say we let the spirit of it linger awhile as we practice doing things to nurture our relationships. Just think how much happier we’d all be and how much more love there’d be in the world by next Valentine’s Day.

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona