Written By Sherwood Kohn

The “niche” phenomenon, in which services are aimed at specific demographic groups, has pervaded our consumer society.

Once based on intuitive assessments of the market, appeals to portions of the population are now made easier by a technology that is able to gather and quickly analyze vast quantities of information.

For example, the magazine publishing industry was once the almost exclusive province of such mass media as Life, Look and Time. Now only Time survives, and the rest of the market is fragmented into thousands of niche publications, including Carroll Magazine.

Likewise, television programming offers hundreds of channels devoted to almost any subject that you can name. The same goes for the Internet: the ultimate example of a medium that appeals to and is participated in by millions of individuals, each of whom has his or her own agenda.

Summer camps, of course, have catered to a wide variety of specific interests for more than 50 years. There are sailing camps, fat camps, thin camps, golfing camps, and even (as our story on Page 75 reveals) camps for grieving children. The local YMCA alone offers at least 15 kinds of day camp.

Even the packagers of food for your local supermarket have swarmed into the field with goods targeted for almost every type of shopper. And now there are even targeted grocery chains.

It is obvious that we are offered a wider choice in almost every area of the marketplace. But what is interesting about the phenomenon is its reliance on data and the fact that the data-gatherers know an astonishing amount of detail about every one of us.

You must know that every time you use a credit card, the information about what you bought is registered and sold to some marketer. Do you buy self-help books? What kind of car do you own? Are you sometimes late in paying bills? What newspaper do you read? Or do you get your news from television or the Internet? The answers to those questions, combined with other data, determine what sales pitches you will receive.

If you have an account at Amazon.com, you know that their bookselling department recommends books to you on the basis of your past purchases.

And, of course, whether you wish it or not, all of your personal data is available to anyone, including the federal government, and you have very little control over it.

So the creation of the “niche” approach has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, you can obtain goods and services that suit you in various specific ways. On the other, you may be manipulated-often without your knowledge-to act in ways that benefit someone who couldn’t care less about your welfare.
Like most technological advances, the mechanism is only as good as its users.