To Know Me Is to Know My Stuff

Besides "thinkers," "achievers" and "experiencers," VALS' eight types of consumers include "innovators," "believers," "strivers," "makers" and "survivors." Thumbnail descriptions of the personality types can be found at SRIC-BI's VALS Web site (http://www.sric-bi.com/VALS/types.shtml).

Another market research tool, Claritas Inc.'s PRIZM NE program, breaks down 66 lifestyle segments based upon census and other data, and uses the motto, "You are where you live."

Enter a person's ZIP code at the company's Web site (http://www.clusterbigip1.claritas.com/MyBestSegments/Default.jsp?ID=20), and up pops a list of the five most common lifestyle segments for the area, and objects people in those segments tend to like. For example, people who fit the "bohemian mix" demographic supposedly shop at Banana Republic, read Vanity Fair and watch "Friends" in syndication.

"People living in one of our segments called 'shotguns and pickups,' they're not going to be getting Banana Republic catalogs," says Stephen Moore, a Claritas spokesman. "They're going to be getting Field and Stream."

Not everyone in a particular ZIP code will fit into one of the top five segments, but many will, Moore says -- though the company sometimes gets complaints from people who do not like to be profiled.

"The thing about people by nature is that they don't want to be data varieties," he says, "when in fact, the way they live, they categorize themselves. … That's what PRIZM is built on, the idea of birds of a feather flocking together."

Wrong Ideas

But there can be pitfalls.

For one thing, marketing demographics often are designed to generalize for large swatches of people, not individuals, meaning a person may not fit all the details in a template.

For another thing, considering too few objects can lead to mistakes because people of different personality types can enjoy the same things for different reasons.

"'Thinkers' go to the gym because they know from reading that it's healthy to be active," Hollenberg says. "'Experiencers' go because they want to look sexy and for the social interaction at the gym. 'Achievers' go because they know it's healthy, but it's also a reward for their hard work at their job and taking care of their kids."

Even when multiple possessions are considered, patterns still can be misinterpreted.

"If you … see they like jazz musicians A, B and C, you may think that they'll like musicians D, E and F," says Russell Belk, N. Eldon Tanner professor of business administration at the University of Utah. "But they may be classifying them in a different way. They may like A, B and C because they're all San Francisco musicians. … So it's fraught with difficulty."

It also might seem easy to see what a specialized hobbyist such as a stamp collector might like. But people should remember that the collector is well aware of pricing, and might regard the gift as naïve or predictable.

"It can also be a minefield because, for example, if I'm a collector, part of the thrill is the hunt," says Cele Otnes, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies gift-giving and receiving. "If you take the hunt away as a giver, you might diminish the joy of as if I'd found those objects my own way."

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