The news: In April 2013, 17-year-old Ashley Seay died when her SUV went off the road and slammed into a tree. This month, OfficeMax sent an advertisement in the mail to Ashley’s father, Mike Seay. Here’s the address label on the front of the letter:
How does OfficeMax know something like that? And why was it included on the address label for a simple flyer?
These are the exact questions Seay wants to know himself. Because when your daughter dies at 17, the last thing you need is a retail supply chain putting it on discount coupons.
Seay said in an interview with the local news: “Why would they have that type of information? Why would they need that? … What purpose does it serve anybody to know that? And how much other types of information do they have if they have that on me, or anyone else?”
Welcome to the era of big data. As the Daily Dot points out, this isn’t the first time a mega retail chain has been privy to intimate details of a customer’s life. Almost two years ago, it was revealed that Target was tracking its customers’ purchases and could even tell when someone was pregnant based on the products she was buying. Target would then use this information to send coupons on baby products to expecting mothers. The data served a purpose.
But how can OfficeMax possibly use the information on Seay’s daughter? How does it benefit a retail supply chain to know that one of their customers lost a daughter? There are no coupons for that.
So the question isn’t how OfficeMax knew of Seay’s tragedy – if the story made local news, it would’ve been all too easy for OfficeMax to pick up on it – but rather why they deemed it pertinent information. As Seay asks, "what purpose does it serve anybody to know that?" How on Earth could OfficeMax possibly use knowledge of Seay's deceased daughter to peddle office supplies?
OfficeMax calls the letter an “unfortunate error” and blames a third-party mailing list provider used to send out advertisements. But that doesn’t explain the fact that this particular tidbit – that Seay’s daughter died this past year – was featured prominently enough in their customer profile on Seay that it ended up, accidentally, on junk mail.
This simply shows the extent of the trove of information retailers have on their customer’s – even infrequent ones, as Seay describes his shopping at OfficeMax. As Americans panic over government surveillance, this letter is a reminder that private companies are doing their own fair share of data mining, for who knows what purpose.