Footfall Data & Analytics

When retail technology goes wrong

Written by Tony Loxton
Aug 2

Retail technology –  and the insight it affords retailers into their customers’ behaviour –  is both a blessing and a curse. As the old adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Today, making a purchase and sharing personal information are inexplicably intertwined; while retailers rejoice, not all customers are quite as enthused. With (almost) unlimited information about who their customers are, they way they buy, and the way they interact with brands in general, retailers are waking up to the fact that employing technology in the hopes of increasing their market share has to be approached responsibly.

As retail technology becomes both smarter and more prevalent, the line between private and public information is blurring by the minute.

American retailer Target made headlines when their data-mining efforts resulted in an incredibly awkward (not to mention defamatory) situation. In a bid to cash in on mothers-to-be, the brand developed an algorithm that coupled demographic data with purchasing history to ‘predict’ the pregnancies of shoppers. But even the most sophisticated algorithms still lack the quality that makes us human: emotional intelligence. This became all too evident when the brand was faced with an irate father who discovered his sixteen year old daughter had been sent coupons for baby and maternity wear in the mail after Target’s algorithm had (correctly) predicted that the high schooler was with child. Unfortunately, the marketers behind the campaign failed to consider the possibility that not all expectant mothers wanted to make their impending motherhood public knowledge. This debacle highlights the many problems that can – and do – arise when private information is shared (willingly or not) with a commercial entity. While it’s safe to say the father in question can probably never drive past a Target again without having some unpleasant flashbacks, the fallout from the misuse of retail technology can end up permanently marring the reputation of your brand, no matter who you are.

If you’re not using retail technology that truly serves your customers, you run the risk of painting yourself in an Orwellian light.

No one wants Big Brother tracking their every move. Unfortunately, many brands do so – unabashedly. If you’ve ever received an unsolicited email (or worse, a phone call) from a brand, you’ll know the feeling all too well. This is retail technology at its worst: gathering information about your customers, only to use it in an interruptive, inconvenient, and blatantly self-serving way. Even though legislation is in place to mitigate the digital equivalent of cold calling, it still happens. And the only thing worse than the blasé treatment of your customers’ sensitive information is physically rocking up outside their house and knocking on their door as you shout their full name, age and buying history. Moral of the story? If you’re going to collect data about your customers, make sure you use it to improve their experience, in an ethical and compliant way.

Retail technology is most powerful when it’s combined with human insight.

As the Target debacle illustrates, data needs to be put into context in order to serve your customers. Implementing retail technology in the hopes of providing your shoppers with an improved experience is possible, but only if you’re ‘humanising’ the data first. Whether you’re using foot traffic analytics, social media monitoring or a loyalty program to gain information about your market, the rule applies to all customer data: in order to truly put it to work, and (hopefully) delight your customers, you need to put it into context. Relying solely on retail technology to gather and analyse consumer data, without examining it from a ‘human’ point of view first, is risky.

It’s not about how much data you collect, but rather, the kind of data you gather.

In other words, aim for quality over quantity. Instead of investing in every single retail technology out there, focus on the tools that benefit your business most. Too often, retailers find themselves awash with tools and software, without really knowing how to put these to to use. After all, retail technology exists to improve your offering, not to complicate it. Just because Joe Bloggs has installed face-recognition software in his grocery store doesn’t mean you need to too. On that note, make sure that the tools you do choose to use are able to gather pertinent data, and then analyse it. If you need additional software and an army of data-scientists to decipher the findings from your retail technology, you’re missing the point.

We’re of the opinion that the right kind of retail technology benefits consumers and businesses. If you’re a retailer who wants to use data to delight your customers, find out about Blix Traffic, our in-store foot traffic analytics software, here.

Learn more about Blix Traffic for retail

You might be interested in these