Data Points, Pressure Points, & TMI

I just had a birthday — my 65th — which meant that I’m suddenly getting a lot of phone calls and pieces of mail that aren’t exactly brightening my day.

It seems like I get at least a couple of phone calls a day offering me medical insurance of one kind of another and, to be honest, it is kind of annoying. Though those aren’t as bad as the voice mail messages I get that start out, “Hello, senior!” When I hear those two words, I generally carry through on the impulse to utter a two-word epithet and then hang up the phone. (One problem with cell phones: you can’t slam them down in disgust.)

Then, the other day I got an e-mail offering me a discount on hearing aids. I can only hope that the people who sent me that e-mail had them in so they could hear my reaction to that particular message.

It’s not that I mind turning 65. I still have my hair, I run 20 miles a week, and I have a fulfilling career that allows me to write and talk for a living, two of my favorite things. And there are advantages, I’ve learned that one can save a fair amount of money on movie tickets and even hotel rooms when one gets to be a certain age. Plus, in places like Portland, Oregon, they don’t just offer discounts on public transportation, but even refer to you as an “honored citizen.” Makes it almost worth turning 65, since I’ve never been honored for anything before.

While I’m thrilled with the barrage of age-related solicitations, there are at least two reasons to be sanguine about it all. First, turning 65 beats the alternative. Second, I’ve generally believed that the collection and effective use of actionable data is one of the great differentiators in the current retail marketplace.

Think about it. In so many ways, the accumulation and then weaponizing of customer data is one of Amazon’s greatest advantages. I’ve been shopping on Amazon since January 1997 — fair to say I was an early adopter. I can go on the site and see what my first purchase was: a book called “No I know Why Tigers Eat Their Young/How to Survive Your Teenagers,” which tells you a lot about what I was thinking 22 years ago.

But if I know that, so does Amazon…and it can take every purchase I’ve made from then to now and translate those purchases into relevant recommendations that, I suspect, turn into purchases more often than blind promotions that so many retailers send out. (I wonder how many vegans get sent ads for beef, or how many people with celiac disease get bread promotions.)

The effective use of data was the whole idea behind Dunnhumby, which was created in the mid-90s and then sold to Tesco; Kroger’s use of Dunnhumby data, and then its acquisition of Dunnhumby USA, has been a real differential advantage for the company.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks.

That became evident recently when, as the Boston Globe reported, Wayfair embarked on a new sales strategy that created a “new customer service team, the Wayfair Insider Program, that monitors shoppers’ online browsing habits and then steps in to offer assistance as a way to close a sale.”

If you are spending a lot of time looking at an item and appear to be indecisive about buying it, you get a phone call from a Wayfair Insider, who offers to help close the deal.

Now, according to the Globe, the company says that “calls were not based on real-time browsing and noted that customers get an e-mail from Wayfair offering assistance before anyone places a call…there is a 48-hour lag time between someone browsing on the site and receiving a call; and that shoppers provide their phone number to the company in advance of their being contacted.”

But some folks still are creeped out by this and are telling the Insiders a) not to call, and b) let their superiors know that this is too much.

The thing is, there will be some people who would welcome the phone call. Maybe Wayfair just had to do a better job of emphasizing the opt-in nature of the program, which could’ve alleviated a lot of anxiety.

The line is different for everyone…which is one of the reasons that companies have to e careful about such efforts.

I recently wrote a piece on MorningNewsBeat that referenced the Quip toothbrush. I later got an e-mail from a reader who saw it, didn’t know what a Quip was, Googled it, and since then kept seeing sponsored posts for the product online. This is, to be sure, a common technique…we’ve all had that experience of going to an e-commerce site and then seeing relentless advertising for that product. It is one way companies like Google and Facebook make money.

The problem is that when this happens, some people feel their privacy has been invaded.

We have an ongoing debate about this in my house. My wife is annoyed by these ads, but I argue that if I am going to see ads, I’d rather see them for products in which I might be interested or might find relevant.

(My far younger wife, on the other hand, finds the hearing aid ads and “hello, senior” robocalls to be hilarious. Just wait until she gets to be my age.)

Relevance — and permission — strike me as the key.

The other day, after Amazon announced it was eliminating the $14.99-per-month fee for grocery delivery, making delivery from Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market just another perk included in Prime membership, I decided to see if my local Whole Foods would offer the service. I can’t imagine using it much — I can walk to Whole Foods in about five minutes — but I thought it would be good to know.

Alas, my Whole Foods is not offering the service yet, but the site asked me if I wanted to be notified when it is available in my zip code. I clicked “yes,” and then was brought to a page that listed every product I’d ever bought at Whole Foods using my Prime app to get discounts.

Every single one.

Now, at first, that seemed a little creepy. Then, in about ten seconds, I realized that by allowing them to scan my Prime app at checkout, I was permitting them to accumulate this information. Ten seconds later, as I looked at the screen, I realized I had the makings of an easy-to-use shopping list that would allow me to navigate Whole Foods online quickly and easily.

We went from a little creepy to relevant and permission-based is about 20 seconds. Not that long a time, not that long a trip, and leading to the potential for a more friction-free shopping experience.

In the words of the song by George and Ira Gershwin, ‘Who could ask for anything more?’

Kevin Coupe is the founder of This article originally appeared in 2019 Issue 6 of California Grocer magazine.