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

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

“Omni” What? It’s Da BOMB

IN MY MEANDERS around the vibrant NRF Expo hall (#NRF12) in New York this month, I tried my best to spot the visible stars of the show and detect the invisible three-degree background radiation that lurks behind the retail firmament.

The atmosphere was energized, the crowds were large and buzzwords were flying. Shopper insights swirled in the cloud, mobile technology hype charged the atmosphere, and business intelligence oozed out of every software booth into glowing puddles on the Javits Center exhibit floor.

Ultimately there was too much for one greying, recovering journalist to absorb. This is surely why I wound up at the bar in Manhattan’s Landmark Tavern one evening with a group of senior retail business writers (a.k.a.,”ink-stained wretches”) who gather each year to drink beer and tell lies.

The BSQ 

We talked about how NRF has become primarily a retail operations exhibition, and how that had evolved to be primarily about software solutions. Egged on by my fellowship of professional cynics and emboldened by many lagers and stouts, we began evaluating the first day’s bullshit quotient. The BSQ is a pretty simple ratio – buzzword repetition divided by genuine new ideas. (This is a party game only old journalists could love.)

The buzzwords were easy: “Insights” (every retail software solution promises better ones); “Analytics” (every retail software solutions promises faster ones); “Business Intelligence” (how every solution promises to deliver the insights and analytics); “Big Data” (what results from gathering so many insights and analytics); “Cloud” (the place in cyberspace where every vendor proposes to house its Big Data); “Dashboard” (a screen where retail practitioners are supposed to want to access their BI); and “Omni-Channel” (a state of retailing where online commerce coexists with mobile commerce and bricks & mortar, empowered by – you guessed it – insights, analytics, Big Data and BI).

As ever, the genuine new ideas were harder to detect. “Performance Management” may be a good one (the quaint notion that retailers might want to measure the outcomes of their insight-driven plans to see if they are really paying off). “Retail Industry Creates Jobs” is another, presented as a core theme by the NRF itself.

Readers familiar with basic arithmetic will quickly reason that for the umpteenth consecutive year, the BSQ on the exhibit floor was off the charts. The principle factor here is buzzword repetition, which drives the numerator toward infinity, while really genuine new ideas to pad the denominator are rare indeed.

Da BOMB
There is a lot to say about each of the major buzzwords and concepts that enlivened the NRF Expo. Right now let’s focus a little on “omni-channel retail,” which is recent nomenclature for an idea that has been around for quite a while. As far back as the dot-com boom in 1998 we began discussing the interplay between virtual and physical stores, catalogs, kiosks and call centers. By 2000 we identified several multi-channel players – like Eddie Bauer, and JCPenney – who had succeeded admirably (we thought then) in melding online, offline and catalog businesses to the benefit of shoppers.

The “shop anywhere, buy any where, return anywhere” principal was captured in the final edition of VStoreNews, where we labelled it “Broadband Merchant,” re-purposing a popular adjective. By then much of the industry had adopted “multi-channel” as the nom de jour.

At NRF this month, alot of folks were calling this “Omni-Channel,” I think because of the stunning influence of mobile technology within the mix. We can (and will!) argue long and hard about the appropriate understanding and application of mobile technology in retail, but for now let’s just stipulate that mobile is colossal in its influence. Explosive even.

Which is why I’d like to humbly offer an “omni” alternative. Call it BOMB retailing – Blend Online, Mobile & Bricks into a single entity where every channel shares a common information platform and consistent shopper interface. One brand, one shopper relationship, one inventory, one set of service standards, many moving touchpoints.

Surely after 14 years on the interweb machine, the omni-present, omni-channel, but hardly omniscient retail industry is ready to blow up the status quo.

© Copyright 2012 James Tenser

Pay Cycles: When Month Outlasts Money

I WAS STRUCK to read comments a couple of months ago by Walmart CEO Mike Duke who stated that the chain’s shoppers seemed lately to be running out of money in the waning days of the month. He cited the shrinking size of market baskets as evidence. Tough times leading to tough choices.

Separate recent reports about the worrisome state of our consumer economy observe that budget-conscious shoppers tend lately to purchase smaller package sizes near the end of their pay. This, of course, is a key contributing factor to smaller baskets. William Simon, Walmart U.S. stores chief, made reference to this “paycheck cycle” at a recent analyst meeting.

This morning a report in Bloomberg News described shoppers upping their use of credit cards for purchase of household necessities and gasoline. This is a confounding signal that looks on the surface like a rebound in consumer confidence. In fact, it seems to be concentrated at the end of the calendar month. This may be a sobering sign that many households’ flat and declining paychecks can’t keep pace with price increases.

I’ll leave the economic and social import of this behavioral trend to the true experts. But I would like to offer a few thoughts about the time-based shopper insights that allow analysts to detect and measure the trend. Looking at detailed market basket trends day by day, it seems, can reveal a great deal about short-term household economics.

Not Card-Sharp? Then Be a Basket Case
This is interesting because we hear a different tune about insights from the many advocates of frequent shopper programs, a.k.a., loyalty cards. The detailed segmentation data these programs can deliver offer a wealth of target marketing opportunities for retailers and their suppliers, along with behavioral insights so detailed and profound that we don’t always know how to apply them in practice.

This is very cool stuff and it is credited with upping sales and profits at some pretty sharp retailers, like Kroger. Card-linked data allows marketers to put together a picture of a whole customer relationship over time, evaluate it, and group customers into target-able groups. Walmart and the so-called “dollar” stores, however, do not go in for those card marketing schemes. They stick deliberately to their EDLP guns instead, and resign themselves to data-poverty.

Or so it may seem. Actually, there is a great deal that may be learned just by looking at basket trends, especially at those retailers who enjoy very large footprints and shopper penetration. Card-free chains like Walmart, Publix and Dollar General can track the transaction logs by day and by local geography to extract very meaningful insights. Even if the shoppers are not individually identified, their collective behavior reveals much about pay cycle trends on a store-by-store basis.

Here is where even “data impoverished” retailers can find basis for some global and targeted merchandising tactics. Carrying sufficient smaller pack sizes in key categories every day is one obvious response Walmart says it has pursued. Sales and events may be scheduled to coincide with payday for local large employers. Managers’ specials may be timed to hit key mid-month and end-of-month dates.

Well there you have it. It’s still a share-of-wallet game, even when wallets are growing slimmer. Walmart knows, there’s much of tactical value embedded within store transaction-logs, even where there’s no loyalty data in sight. It’s not just dollar size of baskets that may influence action, it’s also item counts, categories included/avoided, package sizes and purchase influences from outside factors.

When the month runs long, wise retailers jump on their cycles.

© Copyright 2011 James Tenser