Data for customer closeness: Is in-store finally catching up with online?

It seems strange to begin a retail blog post by talking about a lack of consumer data. Much of what’s currently written relates to how leading retail brands are getting closer to their customers by analysing data. But there is one area in which even the most advanced retailers know comparatively little about their customers and have very little usable data  – namely their in-store behaviour.

Very few companies have even attempted to collect meaningful behavioural data in-store. None have cracked it. While the great benefit to retailers of online shopping is the trail of data they leave behind, for in-store shopping this type of information is much harder to come by.

The benefits to retailers of data exhaust left behind by customers are clear. It enables them to observe individuals’ preferred paths-to-purchase and also to improve their own understanding of what items complement each other so they know which products to push towards customers at the point of purchase. This kind of knowledge is lacking for the in-store channel, but retailers know they could benefit hugely from acquiring it.

When discussing in-store customer behaviour at the recent Forrester Customer Experience Forum, John Lewis’s retail director Andrew Murphy acknowledged that it would be a dangerous ‘leap of faith’ to merely map what the company knows about its online customers onto their in-store customers. Murphy believes that retailers needed to understand the way customers operate in each of their separate channels if they are to create an effective omni-channel strategy.

For this reason, John Lewis is attempting to overcome its lack of data relating to in-store behaviour to get closer to its customers. In a bid to make its customer offering more personalised in 2015, John Lewis has been rolling out transactional tablet devices to store staff and has developed an app which will be used to collect data on in-store buying habits. Store staff will use the tablets to help shoppers decide what to buy and to collect their data trail in much the same way as it occurs when shoppers buy online.

As an attempt to shore up the main hole in not only their own but most retailers’ omni-channel data generation, John Lewis’s move is very admirable.

However, when considering this method as a means of gathering accurate information, this researcher is a bit more cynical. The involvement of store staff in the process means that you are not observing organic behaviour. It is likely that customers will not be acting naturally when shopping with a sales representative which means that data gathered through this method will not be as accurate a read as that provided by digital data trails.

For data as accurate as that, retailers will have to embrace mobile research or to wait for wearable tech to take hold on a consumer-wide level.