• The Power of Habit, part 7/9

    Today we will be taking a deeper look at The Power of Habit, in the second of our nine-part series on the mammoth hit that spent over a year on the New York TimesBestseller list. The Power of Habit was written by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg was a staff writer of The Los Angeles Times, until 2006; since then he has been a reporter at The New York Times, and was one of a team of New York Times reporters who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a series of 10 articles about the business practices of Apple.

    “It turrns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of.”
    After the downer of last week’s review of times of crisis leading to new habit-forming opportunities, we get a lighter chapter about one of the most interesting stories of the last few years, when Target knew a teen girl was pregnant before her own father did.
    Duhigg talks with Andrew Pole, the statistician that Target hired to develop the customer-analyzing algorithm in the human-interest story that the chapter leads with. Target’s big-data program, stunning in both its breadth and insidiousness, rightfully spooked a lot of shoppers who weren’t comfortable with the idea (true as it may be) that they were creatures of habit, who shopped for the same things, in the same quantities, as thousands of others and were eminently predictable. Of note: USC research shows customers are buyers of habit, and even when they try and change (such as going on a diet) their shopping habits remain the same (buying desserts). The way customer habits change is by the customer going through a major life event (a marriage or divorce, or the greatest life event – adding a child).
    This is when patterns are at their least-locked-in, which is why Target tries so hard to, well, target new or expectant moms.
    Expanding on the idea that customers are creatures of habit, Duhigg explains how “Hey Ya!” was a hit that almost wasn’t; it was new and daring and despite being good (it won the Grammy for Best Song), listeners initially didn’t like it. It was too different from the songs they already enjoyed. So radio stations tried to sandwich “Hey Ya” between two other, already familiar songs – but not just popular songs; ones that were aggressively average. Songs that were comforting in their appeal to mediocrity, the mean of Top 40 music. It worked. Within weeks, fans who were calling to complain about “Hey Ya” were calling to request it. Once they had been eased into the idea of “Hey Ya” existing, they couldn’t get enough.
    Target solved the Big Brother [AMAZON LINK TO 1984] problem by sending out new-parent mailers while mixing in ‘false seeds’ for lawnmowers and beer, things that no pregnant woman would want. The expectant mothers marched down to Target, happy to use coupons for the products that Target wanted them to buy, none the wiser. And ignorance made for bliss both on the customer and retailer sides.
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