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The good, the bad, and the ugly of shopper insight technologies

wifiAt the risk of giving away both my age and my teenage obsessions, I can vividly remember the day I asked my mum for one of the then brand-spanking-new Casio Calculator Watches.

My mum quite reasonably asked why – after all I already had a watch and a perfectly functional calculator. I replied predictably, “mum, it just looks great, and all my friends want one”. I got my way, of course, and another gadget was added to the stockpile of under-utilised electronics within a fortnight of purchase.

Some decades later my career has taken me to the technology-infused world of shopper insights: there are store cameras, wi-fi sensors, and eye tracking glasses to play with; there are virtual reality stores, location sensitive mobile surveys, facial recognition technologies, and 3D store design programs to ‘get closer to the truth’ about shoppers. The list goes on, so I should be happy, right? Well, sort of.

You see, manufacturers and retailers have, one after another, increasingly dabbled in bringing technology to their stores and into their shopper insights programs.

Often, they’ve worked directly with the technology-provider to make this happen and, of course, it would be dangerous to generalise – after all, some have had very good experiences with ‘tech companies’.

Yet weekly I come across the same complaint from senior marketers, and it goes something like this, “we did a trial of that technology, but gave up because it wasn’t telling us anything we could really use”.

One after another, retailers and their suppliers have lost faith in using ‘gadgets’ to understand shoppers, some have adopted a ‘once-bitten-twice-shy’ approach to buying the next latest shopper technology.

Why did this happen?

Back to my temporarily-loved Casio Calculator Watch. On reflection, I bought it for all the wrong reasons.

It looked pretty, it was being talked about and it made me feel ahead of the pack, certainly. But, and this but is pretty important, I really didn’t need either a watch or calculator, and I really didn’t have a problem to apply the gadget to, after all who does their homework while out walking?!

Shopper insights technologies do have their place and can work very well. But only if they’re relevant to the problem at hand and only if we can glean answers to the actual business problem simply and clearly.

Take two examples: cameras in store and wi-fi tracking sensors. Overhead cameras are used to count and observe shopper behaviours instore.

They are only relevant in small format stores where a camera can observe most of the store activity; and they only answer a problem when changes are made in store and camera patterns can be observed pre- to post-change to assess the impact of change.

Wi-Fi sensors are used to understand shopper pathways in store, where do they go first, next and so on.They’re only relevant in a large format store where a shopper is moving slowly; and they only answer a problem when ‘heat maps’ can be linked to sales data, for instance, to identify busy spots in store that are not getting sales and could be better utilised.

So, the moral of the story is to only buy your Casio Calculator Watch when:

a. You know no other product will do the job quite as effectively; and

b. You know you actually have a specific problem to use the gadget for.

Enjoy technology that’s useful!

Mike Cassidy is co-founder of shopper insights agency, Koji.

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