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Why Data Alone Won’t Deliver Customer Centricity

As retailers harness the power of data to understand customer needs, they face the challenge of being agile enough to take action and recenter the retail experience around the customer.

At an NRF Big Show panel this week, Greg Petro, CEO of First Insight, shared findings from “The Arrival of the New Male Power Shopper,” a new report focused on the striking increase in men’s spending potential on mobile shopping platforms and Amazon. The findings concluded that not only are men now making mobile purchases at the same rate as women, on some platforms, like Amazon, men are actually outpacing women in purchase frequency. That’s an enormous change to the leading philosophy around men and mobile shopping, said Petro.

But simply having this information isn’t enough, he said, brands must be equipped to target this new “power shopper”—or put big revenues at risk.

The reality is the retail landscape changes constantly and technological advancements alone won’t enable brands and retailers to achieve true customer centricity—organizations must change, too.

“We have 60 million customers, one in every two families in America,” said Michael Gilbert, EVP of product development at Kohl’s. ”You can imagine what a goldmine of data that is. The challenge was, what do we do with it?”

Gilbert explained that the team at Kohl’s used information to change its production pipeline in two specific ways over the last few years. First, by giving their supply chain a much-needed update and reassessing their sourcing partnerships. Then, Gilbert said, came the internal change.

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“Our process of developing and making decisions on products was slow, so we redid our processes,” Gilbert explained. “We moved the model and have taken four months out of our end-to-end process, which lets us respond to in-season purchasing behaviors and take advantage of trends more quickly.”

Mark Chrystal, chief analytics officer at rue21, reiterated Gilbert’s point that data is only valuable when it’s used to take decisive action in shifting the retail experience around the customer.

“It’s not enough for us as retailers to have the robust tools and relationships to collect customer data,” Chrystal said. “You have to foster an organization that can contain that data and turn it into action.” Chrystal said when he joined rue21 in November 2017, his team adopted an action learning methodology in order to move the needle on the strategies they developed. “Democratizing the debate [around our data] and those decisions helped us understand how data-driven actions would impact our team members, and it was a great method for making complex change.” 

Chrystal lauded this “action learning” method for putting rue21’s consumer data to use, and other panelists emphasized the importance of putting action at the center of the data discussion.

“How many of us have built a strategy and hung it up on the wall, and a year later said ‘Oh, that’s a great idea, we should do that?’” said Anne E. Joyce, chief customer officer and EVP of technology supply chain and field operations, Chico’s FAS Inc. She pointed out that practical data application can be a mesh of the digital and analog, like the smart bra announced by Soma Intimates, a Chico’s FAS brand, at CES last week, which takes real-time measurements to help women find the right fit. “That’s a wonderful example of where we can listen, find experience gaps and fill them through innovation,” said Joyce.

Joyce also detailed the unique omnichannel organization used at Chico’s, where in-store stylists and sales associates are responsible not just for their sales floor, but also a trade zone geofenced outside of the store. Chico’s created tools and digital maps to link the in-store teams to online sales. And just as importantly, they compensated their store associates for their digital successes. “When you compensate people, you change the behavior,” Joyce said. “We compensated our field because we wanted an omni, integrated experience.”

“Cultural change is the hardest change,” Gilbert said. “We’ve found that setting actionable goals and targets with clear incentives are what help budge people into new ways of working.”

Drastic organizational change might seem like a heavy load to take on, but to succeed in a retail market that centers around the customer’s needs, it’s necessary.

“Data and knowledge won’t matter if you can’t execute things in an intentional way,” Joyce said. “It has to be authentic and intentional, not accidental.”