Jill, Meet Best Buy’s Friendly Human Shopbot/Profiler

I’m a little surprised this article hasn’t generated more discussion. Last week, the Washington Post ran an article about Best Buy’s efforts to segment and target its customer base. They have developed a set of consumer profiles that they describe with friendly personal names (presumably, to put a human face on the profiles), like Barry (the wealthy professional man), Ray (the family man), Buzz (the young tech enthusiast), and most prominently, Jill.

Jill is a soccer mom who is the family’s main shopper. She is well-educated and confident but intimidated by technology.

To help serve Jill better, Best Buy has organized a Jill SWAT team. When a woman enters the store who looks like a Jill, a dedicated sales assistant (dressed in pastels) approaches her and asks “Is there anything special you’re looking for today?” The sales assistant then hand-holds the Jill through the store and even has special hard-to-find express checkout lanes that are intended for Jills.

On the plus side, these efforts to sort and treat customers differently improves the experience for the affected customers. The Jills find what they are looking for faster. Best Buy benefits too, extracting 30% more sales from Jills. In aggregate, this seems like this improves consumer welfare, producer welfare and social welfare.

On the minus side, the programs mean that customers get differential treatment. Given my advancing age, I’m probably more of a Ray than a Buzz, and I’m guessing the Ray-schmucks get stuck in the long lines instead of being queued up to the express lanes. This isn’t the first time that Best Buy has expressly distinguished between customers, and of course many businesses try to sort and segment customers. I don’t have a problem with making distinctions between customers–in fact, I strongly favor it as a way to improve social welfare–but I know many people do.

Perhaps more troubling is the seeming racial profiling of customers. It’s possible that Jill-assistants don’t make racial/ethnic distinctions, but I doubt it. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Jills are de facto white, even if there’s no corporate policy to that effect (or even if there is a corporate policy against such judgments). This visual profiling definitely makes me nervous and uncomfortable about impermissibly discriminatory treatment.

The imprecise nature of visual targeting (predicated on stereotyped definitions, no less) shows a huge advantage of the Internet. The Internet permits much more accurate behavioral targeting that should lead to consumer, producer and social welfare improvements. Still, Best Buy is showing that offline efforts to segment and target can be effective, so I suspect we’ll see more of this in the future.