Coupon in hand, one night last week, I headed out to a beauty retailer to buy a certain brand of shampoo that isn't available at the big-box store I generally frequent.
While checking out, the cashier asked if I belonged to the retailer's customer loyalty card program. I didn't, and she had caught me in just the right mood. I figured I'd be back soon enough to replenish my shampoo, so I said, "Sure, I'll sign up." She'd promised me it'd take but a few seconds, and she was right. She asked just a couple of questions, including "What's your birth date?"
That last one gave me pause, less because I'm self-conscious about my age but more because it seemed she thought I might be. "Don't worry," she was quick to add, with a bit of an apologetic look on her face, "I don't need the year, just the month and day."
Hmm. Granted, within the span of the last 15 hours I had worked a full day, cheered my son on at his soccer game, pulled together a quick dinner, did the dishes, and was now out shopping. But did I really look so haggard as to make the clerk concerned how I'd react to being asked my age? OK, maybe. But still, I wasn't so tired as not to be somewhat amused… and altogether intrigued.
Was the clerk as sensitive when asking the age question of any patron signing up for the loyalty program -- or just those who appeared to be over a certain age? Did she only ask the question so sensitively for female customers or did guys, as rare as they might be shopping in this particular type of store, get the same reaction? Was the clerk acting so sensitively on her own, or was she instructed on how to be apologetic when asking for age?
But the big question that popped into mind was about the loyalty-card program itself and not the clerk's intent. Why did the retailer only ask for birth month and day? Certainly the real marketing bonus comes in knowing a customer's age, and for that the company would need the year. Many beauty products and services are ageless, but many aren't. Certainly age would be a critical component of understanding who I am and what I might be enticed to buy. Would a coupon for Glop & Glam Blueberry Blast shampoo be more likely to get me in the store, or one for L'Oreal Youth Code Dark Spot Correcting and Illuminating Serum Corrector?
The age question was still on my mind the next day when, coincidentally, I'd been scheduled to talk with Wilson Raj, global marketing director of customer intelligence, at SAS (this site's sponsor), about customer-loyalty-program research the company had collaborated on in the UK (more on that in another post). So I asked him what he made of the beauty retailer coming up short on age.
Essentially, what he told me was that I shouldn't be duped. The beauty retailer surely would want to know my age, and it'll use other resources to find it out. The clerk, perhaps, might even have filled in an age range she selected based on my appearance. Maybe knowing that I'm somewhere in the range of, say, 40 to 55 and not 20 to 35 would be accurate enough for the company's marketing purposes.
Also plausible is that because the retailer gathered my name, my address, and the month and day of my birth, it can now mine publicly available resources like social sites to learn the year of my birth and other information about me. It'll then be able to append what it's collected to the data it's asked for upfront. "It'll mine and aggregate and surmise," Raj said.
Well, color me stupid -- or at least more tired than I'd thought.
So this beauty retailer may very well have made a tactical gambit that I'd be more willing to join its loyalty program and share personal data if it avoided explicitly asking me how old I was. Interesting, as chances are I'd have signed up for the program anyway, especially if it meant discounts on the special pricey shampoo I've started to buy. As Raj pointed out, life is a journey. Research shows that customers are more likely to share information or give permission if they know the relationship will be relevant and flow into that journey.
So now I'll be watching this beauty retailer's reaching-out to me like a hawk, aging eyes and all. Is it sending me personalized incentives, clearly based on knowledge of my age? Was it, in other words, less than transparent and truthful about the demographics it was after? If so, what will I do in response? Will I shrug my shoulders, grab the latest offer, and head to the store? Or will I cancel my membership and find somewhere else to buy what I need?
What would you do?