Helping Retailers Achieve Their Data Goals

Jordan Diston Vivo, caught up with Mark Thorpe of Comma Group – a Specialist Management Consultancy who provide Advisory, Delivery & Support Services for Data Management, Data Governance & Data Quality.

With Data being front and centre of the three challenges I have recently released articles on, I had the chance to sit down with Mark Thorpe from Comma, who shared his views, thoughts and insights into the changing landscape of retail in a post COVID world.

Jordan Diston: “Hi Mark, Thanks for joining us today, Would you like to give a quick intro on your background and Comma before we jump into the interview?”

Mark Thorpe: I’ve worked with numerous well-known retail and consumer goods enterprises over the last 20 years, helping them deliver tangible business benefits through better data management. Comma is a modern data consultancy that was established to do the same – to help companies realise that data is a valuable asset and that by managing and governing data efficiently, teams and processes in the organisation are far more empowered and, ultimately, the consumer gets a noticeably better shopping experience.

 Jordan Diston: What is the biggest challenge you see with data & customer engagement?

 Mark Thorpe: A number of things spring to mind actually:

1/ Customer Experience: The whole issue with customer experience seems to be high on retail and FMCG agendas right now. Differentiating themselves by making sure consumers get an excellent experience when they engage with that brand or retailer, be that online or instore, is key.

There is an increasing awareness of driving an effective experience, so you need to be able to provide your customers with very targeted, rich, data. To break it down: you need to understand your customers, this then leads to demand for managing customer data in the correct way, allowing you to properly target, segment and craft your message to the right people, at the right time, via the right channel.  This in turn leads to a demand in rich product data, so that the information you are serving your clients is relevant and supported with good imagery (accurate descriptions, plenty of clear pictures etc). All of this comes together to provide a great experience.

I’ve seen a lot of cases where companies are dazzled by the promise of new software – the lovely features and functions which the customer can use to engage with their brands, but they tend to forget (at least initially) that investing in software without the right data going into the system makes the technology pretty much useless.

2/ Demand for Detail: Consumers increasingly expect in-depth details. For example, let’s think about food products in Retail, Hospitality and Food Manufacture. Consumers expect to be told about things like ingredients, allergens, calorie value and whether or not it is suitable for specific dietary requirements like Vegan or Halal. Not providing this detail would put organisations at a disadvantage in the eyes of the fickle consumer and may also result in a lack of compliance with regulations or legislation.

3/ This not only applies to the food sector. Clothing retail is another example. There is an increasing awareness of exploitation in factories, particularly off-shore, and customers want to know if this £5 t-shirt they are buying, has come from a reputable source and is not a product of child labour… The ability to provide all sorts of details about products, and also about their provenance and packaging is expected. Consumers are becoming more aware about environmental issues and sustainability issues, putting pressure on retailers on the type of packaging used and whether said packaging is recyclable. This puts immense pressures on the retailers, from consumers and to an increasing extent from regulators, to provide these details.

GDPR & Personalisation: Its well known that consumers respond better to offers that are personalised to their own buying habits and preferences, yet at the same time consumers expect that their personal data will be very carefully guarded in accordance with ever-tighter regulations, such as GDPR. Once again this heaps pressure on retailers to manage large volumes of highly dynamic and sensitive Customer data in accordance with the legislation, whilst also marrying it effectively with relevant Product data to create compelling personalised promotions.

Gartner say: 3.1 Trillion$ per year is the cost of poor-quality data in the US. Retailers alone could save up to $500k per year through data cleansing, because 34% of marketeers fail to understand the financial impact of poor-quality data.

4/ Legacy Systems & the Single Source of Truth: Most Retail/FMCG enterprises have a complex legacy environment of systems built up over the years via mergers, acquisitions and new systems purchased over time. The result is often a “spaghetti mess” of systems that have not kept pace with the rapid surge in data volume and complexity .

Of course, all of these systems were chosen for very good reasons at the time and they all have a role to play. But as the volume of data has proliferated it has become increasingly difficult to keep everything in sync. The challenge we see is establishing a “single source of truth”.

It is entirely conceivable that a big retailer can have dozens of different software applications that all have a need for different elements of customer data. When that customer data changes, as it frequently does, making sure the updates are applied across all the environments is a huge task? This causes data quality to rapidly degrade and leads to damaging mishaps in the all-important communication with consumers (such as using incorrect names, addresses, preferences…).

We help retailers, distributors and manufacturers to achieve data synergy across multiple systems. It’s usually not possible or even desirable to just do a wholesale replacement of systems as that is a massive undertaking. So, a lot of what we do is helping clients understand how to create a single view of data types, typically across Customer or Product. Sometimes that means implementing another piece of tech that acts as a central repository and sometimes it means leaving data where it is and creating a virtual layer so you can get a single view of it, even though it resides in different places. Either way, you still get the same business benefit.

Buzzwords abound – many enterprises want to embrace Big Data, Automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Advanced Analytics and more. All are worthy objectives but none will succeed without clear & accurate data and a data strategy that supports business objectives.

How can you see the use of Data playing a Key Part in interacting with your Customers?

COVID has really driven a surge in demand for online retail and has meant those organisations who are not so good at online retailing are scrambling to become better at it. One huge cost that retailers incur is the cost of product returns – people buy goods online and return a large proportion to the retail. This is especially prevalent in clothing, where its common to buy multiple sizes and return the ones which do not fit, creating a massive overhead for retailers, who either repackage the product or, in some cases, just throw it away! It is quite horrendous to think how many return products, especially clothing items, end up in landfill.

By providing consumers with a much richer set of data at the outset, you can enable somebody to look at that product in huge detail online. Technologies such as 360degree views, showcasing all the different colours on offer, or virtual fitting rooms which enable me to put a picture of myself onscreen to see what a garment looks like actually on me. All of that helps me as a consumer make a better buying decision upfront and therefore, I am going to return less stuff. That is a real tangible business benefit, which becomes all the more relevant the more online shopping takes off. The consumer is happy because the retailer has met their needs extremely well and the retailer is happy because revenue is more stable.

Another part of offering targeted promotions is the potential for use of facial recognition technology in stores so that cameras will recognise which individuals have walked into a particular store, they then match your face with your digital customer record & can send personalised offers straight to your smart phone while you are still in-store. This technology is available but once again it won’t work unless you have accurate, reliable data behind the scenes.

What Solutions would you recommend?

The really important point, before we recommend any solutions is that we need to understand what the business wants to achieve and what is their corporate strategy? Where are they trying to get to? Where are they now and what are the challenges faced?

Then we devise solutions that suit the client which might or might not require investment in technology. Sometimes it’s just as effective to retain existing technology but to use it in a more efficient way by adapting processes. For example, by putting a data governance framework in place & clearly defining everyone’s roles & responsibilities about managing data.

It is a common mistake to try to solve data problems simply by implementing a new software platform, whereas the better way to success is to first devise the right solution taking into account the people and processes in the organisation and then using technology as the enabler of the solution rather than the solution in itself.

What excites you most about the world of Data and the importance it holds within the retail sector in general?

Retailers are increasingly realising that data is an asset in the business, most companies understand about physical assets, (Number of Stores/ Square ft / rent / lorry fleets / physical stock etc) but often they don’t invest the same amount of effort in managing their data.

It is noticeable that companies who treat data as an asset and manage it accordingly are the ones who reap massive benefits. Notice the rise of the Chief Data Officer. Fifteen years ago, that wasn’t a common term, but now CDO is increasingly a common role at C- Level. This is recognition of the fact that Data is being taken much more seriously.

Market Place strategies and how they constantly evolve is also very exciting to us. Today retailers can sell on any market place, Zalando, ASOS, EBAY, Amazon, Wayfair etc – it offers the “endless aisle” concept and allows retailers to sell a far wider range online and avoid stock issues by fulfilling orders direct. But it also means retailers have to be able to share their data across these market place channels, all of which require different formats and templates. For the larger companies, who are constantly changing product lines or updating products, then a Product Information Management (PIM) tool can really help you manage what is being fed to your different sales channels and marketplaces.

We have also seen the importance of the social channels as a new revenue stream, being able to buy directly through Instagram, Facebook etc is an area of untapped opportunity for many retailers. Huge growth is predicted across this channel in particular.

The next few years will see an explosion in demand for data and the unlimited potential it can create! Comma is ready to help its clients take full advantage of this huge potential and this is what excites us 😊

We are running a number of interviews with Technology & Commercial Leaders across the Retail Space – If you would like to take part, feel free to contact Jordan Diston on [email protected]