A Little Problem With Big Data

Courtesy RetailWire.comA STIMULATING DISCUSSION in RetailWire.com this morning led me to once again think deeply about how retailers are confronting so-called Big Data and applying it to their businesses.

The question posed was an intriguing one, given the continuing hype and mysticism ascribed to Big Data over the past several years.

What is your take on the advancements (or not) retailers are making in the use of data capture and analysis? Is it all leading to significantly improved customer experiences down the road, or something less?

The responses mostly seemed to accept two tacit assumptions: One, that all store data is Big Data. Two, that the primary goal of Big Data analytics is the creation of targeted promotional offers. I have a little problem with that.

When did retail POS data suddenly become Big Data? We’ve been collecting it (and mostly discarding it) for decades. Now that storage costs have finally declined, we can capture and hold it long enough to run a few queries and design a few models. Shopper in-store data really hasn’t changed much, but our ability to mine its potential has certainly advanced.

Certainly data flows from the POS and frequent shopper programs continue to expand. There are even some new sources, like in-store shopper tracking, entering the mix. Yes there’s lots of data. But is this really Big Data?

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The End of Loyalty

Tom Fishburne cartoonIF IT EVER WAS, it’s fading fast. I’m talking about shopper loyalty and the card-based frequent shopper programs that try to pass as loyalty builders.

I’ve long been a skeptic about the premise of customer loyalty. Card based programs are more about behavioral modification, segmentation and targeting. In many instances — airlines come to mind — the net result is the cultivation of dis-loyalty and skepticism, as a consequence of added complexity, suffocating rules, suspect prices and incentives that many users can never achieve.

Now comes news that the Kroger supermarket chain has begun converting its frequent shopper card holders to a smartphone app. This is news with big numbers behind it, as 96% of Kroger shoppers presently possess a card. Its personalized marketing subsidiary, dunnhumby, is surely driving this action.

This morning, the good folks at RetailWire.com asked its distinguished BrainTrust panelists: “Will Kroger’s App Replace its Loyalty Card?”  Here’s what I had to say about it:

Welcome to the post-loyalty era.

Card programs are not quite obsolete, but they are about to be absorbed by mobile apps. While a front-runner such as Kroger/dunnhumby may be able to convert many shoppers to its proprietary app for a while, the lasting future will be defined by electronic wallet solutions that aggregate frequent shopper plans, coupons and payments on the shopper’s terms. NFC communication with the POS will likely be a key enabling technology.

An observation: The pure value of of frequent shopper data is approaching its zenith. It now diminishes slightly in relative significance as the volume of social media interaction grows. This is the mind-bending next stage in behavioral-based marketing: Things people do, say and experience outside the store may soon eclipse what happens within the four walls.

For retailers that have steadfastly bucked the loyalty-card trend (like Walmart), this may be a moment of affirmation. Or maybe they just got lucky.

© Copyright 2013 James Tenser

Stalking Privacy

TargetedTHE ERA OF INDIVIDUAL PRIVACY may turn out to be a mere blip in the sequence of human history, as the smothering embrace of the World Wide Web makes our every click and consumption act a new molecule in the Big Data tsunami. Marketers salivate at the potential to sift the flow and aim relevant offers with pinpoint accuracy.

If they have their way unimpeded, privacy may turn out to be the human right that never was. People with means may put up barriers to make their personal information difficult to obtain. Everybody else would stand naked in the virtual town square, shielded only by the sheer numbers of their peers.

No wonder reasonable people worry that targeting may easily transmute into stalking when marketers apply automation to their process. The mechanisms and practices are not readily visible to normal citizens. I think this makes the reality both better and worse than it really seems.

This morning I offered this perspective on RetailWire.com as part of a discussion, Are Shoppers Entitled to Privacy While They Shop? This is a topic rife with assumptions that deserve to be challenged.

Here’s my take:

There is no natural right to privacy in the public domain. But protecting privacy may be the preferred practice for marketers and even governments.

If I enter a place of business (in-store or online), I should reasonably expect that my behaviors are open for observation.

But I’m not obligated to like or accept this. I can vote with my feet, clicks and dollars by preferentially visiting or patronizing establishments that adhere to a less creepy standard.

So I would propose that marketers make a habit of disclosure that is not buried on page 18 of the terms of use. Reminders about shopper tracking should be automatic and opt-out mechanisms provided.

If consumer privacy can be bypassed in the name of marketing relevancy, then certainly the marketers themselves should have zero expectation of privacy about their methods and objectives.

Disclose. Disclose. Disclose. Let shoppers tell you what they will accept; then market to meet that expectation.

[Tenser excerpt from Are Shoppers Entitled to Privacy While They Shop? discussion on RetailWire.com, Mar. 15, 2013.]
© Copyright 2013 James Tenser

In-Store Sensing Tops Online Metrics

I POSTED THE FOLLOWING commentary this morning on RetailWire.com as part of a discussion, Can Online Shopper Metrics Be Brought to Stores? I believe online innovation has influenced expectations in the bricks and mortar world. Now stores are poised to deliver sensing that online players can’t ever provide.

I must disclose a recent, prior influence. This post appears just a few days after I made a very informative visit to eTailWest in Palm Springs. Talking with vendors on the exhibit floor, I was struck by their degree of online-only thinking. Innovative analytics tools abounded, but bricks & mortar perspective was in relatively short supply. Since 90% of retail sales still take place in stores, some balance is in order.

Here’s my take:

Online metrics have certainly raised the bar, but in-store sensing will bring its own particular nuances—in some ways surpassing online practices.

The In-Store Implementation Network identifies five senses of in-store: Demand, Items, Messages, Employees and Shoppers. DIMES is part of this 2011 workshop. If you are in a rush, click forward to slide #22:

Tracking shopper movement within the physical store is only one element of the Shopper term of the equation, as I see it.

The present discussion drills deeper into shopper data alternatives—to consider whether tracking mobile phones is a better choice versus analyzing security video versus installing special-purpose video networks versus tracking transponders mounted on shopping carts. (Have we totally given up on electric eyes and grad students with clipboards?)

Further choices include: Do we analyze whole paths or stick to zones? Do we infer shopper demographics from video images? Do we mesh tracking data with POS transaction data?

However data is captured, appropriate analytics must be applied to extract managerially useful insights. The outputs must be timely and in a format that is accessible to decision-makers.

This is a lively sector for our business. With many competitors vying to be the industry standard, I can only offer some general advice:

#1 – Don’t assume comprehensive understanding of your shoppers based solely upon path tracking data
#2 – Never install more technology than is needed to achieve the desired objective
#3 – Expect best practice to change rapidly in this arena
#4 – Results will vary a lot based on channel of trade

[Tenser excerpt from “Can Online Shopper Metrics Be Brought to Stores?” discussion on RetailWire.com, Feb. 5, 2013.]
© Copyright 2013 James Tenser
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