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YESTERDAY I ATTENDED an event that will never be repeated in your or my lifetime. It was a viewing of the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun. That’s something like a solar eclipse by the moon, except much rarer and quite a bit harder to observe since Venus is much farther away.
The kind folks at the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort here in Tucson hosted the afternoon on the hotel patio, and scientists from The Planetary Science Institute, also based here, were our very enthusiastic guides. They set up several specialized solar telescopes for public viewing and presented a series of lectures which explained what was happening and what it meant, astronomically speaking.
The story of the transit of Venus is as much about cultural history as it is about science. For many centuries, natural scientists have been aware of the relative movement of the sun, moon and planets. Venus is the most visible object in the night sky, after the moon itself, but it is not normally visible in the day time. The transit itself happens in pairs, eight years apart; pairs then follow alternately by spans of 121½ years and 105½years. This makes it nearly impossible for a single observer to study.
According to the PSI scientists, it took several centuries for European astronomers, working in concert, to recognize and work out the basic facts of the transit. Once they did get it figured, it yielded important insights about such matters as the distance and size of the sun and whether more distant stars might also have planetary systems.
With the special telescopes it was easy to for us guests to observe the dark dot of Venus as it crept slowly across the solar disk. Several sunspots and solar prominences were a fascinating bonus. The lecturers had tons of anecdotes and insights about what could be learned from observing and measuring the transit.
Since I tend to view our world (and other worlds!) through the peculiar lens of the retail marketer, I was bound to consider what lessons we might derive from the transit of Venus. Several learnings came to mind:
You can see a lot just by looking.* The transit of Venus is hard to view due to the overwhelming brightness of the sun, but as I learned yesterday it’s not that difficult if you have a plan and the right scope. Active observation is key. This made me think about the challenges of in-store sensing and of capturing shopper insights in general. Valuable observations don’t happen by accident; they are a result of carefully planned and executed practices. (*Props to the Yankee sage Yogi Berra.)
Some misses are forever. June 5 marked your last chance to see a transit of Venus. It won’t happen again until 2117. Luckily astronomers recorded this event, so you may watch the video. How many merchandising opportunities and rare marketing insights pass us by just like this? What can we do now to ensure that we don’t miss out on future learnings that may enable us to to be better prepared for the next window of opportunity? In retail merchandising and marketing, it begins with active sensing and collaborative data sharing.
Long cycles are hard to track. Under the most fortunate of circumstances, an individual astronomer gets to see the transit of Venus twice in a lifetime. Many never see it once. Even the lucky ones must count on other recorded observations to grasp its periodicity. With such a slow rhythm, it’s tough to draw reliable conclusions about the nature of the phenomenon. In the product marketing world, we discover that fast-turning consumable products offer some informational advantages as compared with infrequently purchased, higher consideration products, like cars, TVs and appliances. With many fewer data points and behaviors to draw upon, slow-moving consumer goods engender a less granular picture for marketers.
Sometimes you just need a team. Understanding the transit of Venus and its implications has required numerous observations separated by both time and physical distance. The relevant data has been collected by teams of scientists and coordinated among them with a common intent. Consumer insights also accumulate from observations collected across many locations and moments in time. You can’t unlock their potential alone. The implications are too vast, and the effort must be shared and sustained over time to reveal actionable insights and best practices.
The transit of shoppers through retail stores can reveal insights that we can best capture through systematic tracking and observation. When we can get the shoppers themselves engaged in documenting and sharing their actions and preferences – as through mobile devices – even greater wins are possible.
THE New York Times Magazine made people nervous with its February 19th cover story by author Charles Duhigg. Its chilling headline, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” seems to have compelled readership as a matter of personal protection. I make this inference from the number of acquaintances who asked me about it.
[Author’s Note: This column was originally published on March 13, 20122 in the TradeInsight CPG Chatter blog.]
“Creepy” was the adjective repeated most from individuals who read about how Target Stores applied data mining techniques to shopping baskets to infer which shoppers were most likely pregnant, then sent them promotional offers for pre- and post-natal products. Motherhood is pretty personal business, so I can’t say I disagree with the folks who were offended. What gives them the right?
Focusing on this creepy surveillance was a pretty crafty editorial decision by the editors at NYT Magazine, who used the cover line: “Hey! You’re Having A Baby!” The analytics behind pregnancy detection was actually just one example from Mr. Duhigg’s just-released book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” Having a baby, as it turns out, is one of a handful of predictable moments in life when our consumption habits change big time. For eager marketers that information is, well, mother’s milk.
Even if we look past the intrusiveness of offering coupons for cocoa butter lotion to stretchy young mothers-to-be, Mr. Duhigg’s larger thesis about the enduring nature of habit remains compelling in a different, less sensational way.
It tends to strengthen my own observations of long-lasting retail shopper behaviors, such as trip planning, coupon clipping, list-making and response to promotional cues within the store. In “Shoppers’ Perspective,” research I helped co-author for CPG manufacturer Henkel USA in 2009, we learned that shoppers could be sorted into fairly stable groups based on these enduring habits. It took the pain of the subsequent economic downturn to disrupt the patterns. As a result, coupon redemption statistics turned upward to what we may hypothesize to be a new norm.
The central example of the Duhigg article – Target’s effort to target “new natals” in its promotion marketing – is interesting too, but it offers little, truly new insight about behavioral segmentation analytics. Food, drug and mass retailers have understood the buying traits of new and soon-to-be parents (and other behavioral segments) for decades, without the need for sophisticated data mining tools. These insights are easily inferred from examining the contents of shopping baskets from the store’s point-of-sale transaction records – or better, from frequent shopper data.
It is not necessary to know individual identities, but such knowledge does enable the delivery of more personalized offers and services. These may be welcomed by opt-in frequent shoppers, but can be downright creepy when they seem to be the outcome of cyber-stalking.
The NYT Magazine editors correctly surmised that an article excerpted from Mr. Duhigg’s book could quite possibly be a snooze for readers not already fascinated by human behavior, retail analytics and segmentation and targeting. So they focused – perhaps a bit unfairly – on Target’s stalker-ish behavior toward new moms.
For us retail pros, however, divining the nature of repeat behavior is solid stuff – part of our every day thought work. It reminds us that when we try to influence purchase behavior positively, we also take on the challenge of overcoming pre-existing habit.