Data challenges dominate retail debate

Retailers are becoming increasingly intelligent in the way they use data within their businesses, but it is still early days in terms of them fully leveraging the value, especially across multiple channels.

Speaking at the IMRG Data Summit 2019 this week in London, Revolution Beauty’s head of data science and optimisation Ash Madhav told delegates that she had implemented a strategy for using data across the company and that early initiatives were bringing in good results. However, she added that some increasingly important data points, such as customer lifetime values (LTV), were very hard to measure.

Madhav cited an early project to surface product data across the business for customers yielded “lots of insights”, including what products are purchased together and what drives repeat purchases.

Successes like this contributed to the misconception that her data team “have all the answers at their fingertips”, according to Madhav, who added that the complexity of the task was increased when collating data across channels to determine relevant insights.

Despite the retail industry working hard to create ‘one version of the truth’ with their data, it continues to prove challenging to achieve when operating across multiple channels. Sara Lodi, digital product manager at The Body Shop, said the issue of serial browsers would be much better understood if the company was able to identify them on each of the channels.

“It’s not a bad thing to have them [serial browsing] as it could be that they are checking the prices online before visiting a physical store to purchase, but creating a link between online and the store would help,” she said.

It is a similar situation at Wilko, which operates online as well as through 420 stores. Fabien Le Houezec, analytics and insight manager at the retailer, said there is a strategy to replicate online what has been successful in-store, such as its 3-for-2 offers.

“We can adapt the offer to what they bought in the past, but the challenge is to know our customer’s [behaviour] across the channels – our CRM systems work on the web and we’re trying to also use them for the stores.”

Despite the challenges, he was optimistic about the company’s effective use of data in the future. “Wilko will have data at the heart of all its decisions, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be particularly important because if we can react in real-time [to customer behaviour] then this will be a game-changer,” Le Houezec suggested.

What will also help retailers is getting a better handle on measuring customer acquisition costs and customer LTVs. For Madhav these were two of the most important data points she measures at Revolution Beauty, although she admitted that customer LTV is hard to measure. “We start with revenues, profit and the length of time [we’ve had the customer] in the business, but it is difficult to factor in all the costs such as running the warehouses.”

As the cost of acquiring customers increases, then LTV will become ever more important.

This was acknowledged by Mark Roberts, co-founder of Beer Hawk, who said he “obsesses over it” and as such, the strategy of his company was to open bars, which complement the core online business and drive greater customer LTV.

“The bars are good for brand awareness as well as for making money, and for those omnichannel customers who shop across both, then their LTV has increased from our bar openings,” he commented, adding: “They are 40 per cent more valuable to us when they shop across the channels.”

The challenges of utilisation of data across retailers’ businesses is being helped by the availability of skilled people, according to Madhav, who said there is “so much talent around in the industry that it is not difficult to recruit”.

Tellingly though, almost every retailer speaking at the summit was actively recruiting people with expertise in the area of data.

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