Mercedes Ruehl Reporter

Mercedes writes for The Australian Financial Review and BRW from the Sydney newsroom. She has an interest in technology, politics and travel writing.

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Coles, Woolies and the big data arms race

Published 11 June 2013 07:37, Updated 11 June 2013 15:59

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Coles, Woolies and the big data arms race

Supermarkets are now using customer data for anything from choosing store locations to highly personalised marketing campaigns. Photo: Nic Walker

Back in early 2012, Coles sent a nice little letter to almost every home in Australia. In that letter was a FlyBuys card that allowed customers a 10 per cent discount on their top five nominated grocery products. A little over a year later, in May, Coles’ rival Woolworths quietly put down $20 million to buy a 50 per cent stake in a small data analytics company called Quantium.

This is the age of mass data and business intelligence, and in the cut-throat retail sector, the race to attract more customers through analytics is fierce. Although seemingly unrelated, what Coles and Woolworths did marked two strategic moves in the battle for the consumer.

Raj Dalal, the founder and chief executive of big data research firm BigInsights, says corporate Australia is slowly starting to understand that data is the future for commerce.

“There is a growing realisation that the next wave of competition in the retail sector is going to be the battle for the customer, in the sense that they will be using all that data there is at the company’s disposal,” he said.

Big data means large pools of data that can be captured, communicated, aggregated, stored and analysed, according to McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the research and economic research arm of McKinsey & Company.

Using algorithms and other high-speed technology, companies can see patterns and trends that would not be otherwise be apparent.

Retail sector to benefit most

McKinsey’s 2011 report into big data as the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity says big data “is now part of every sector and function of the global economy.”

It is particularly instrumental in the retail industry.

“In the coming years, the continued adoption and development of big data levers have the potential to further increase sector-wide productivity by at least 0.5 per cent a year through 2020,” the report states.

MGI’s study of the United States retail sector found that big data could increase retailers’ operating margins by a possible 60 per cent.

Consumer analytics means making targeted recommendations are a lot easier. Amazon, which uses big data, reported that about 30 per cent of sales were due to its recommendation engine. But few Australian companies really get how important customer analytics are for better and more specific marketing, Dalal claims. That’s why Woolworth’s stake in Quantium was so important.

Until now, major retailers like Coles and Woolworths, and even David Jones and Myer,have been mostly using credit cards and loyalty cards to track consumer habits and improve promotions and marketing.

“For [Woolworths] to outlay that kind of money, while not huge in the grand scheme of their business, it would require a very senior sign-off. This was very out of the ordinary,” Dalal says. But effective.

Woolworths will use Quantium’s data, analytical and software services to better analyse the shopping habits of Australians beyond just its customer base. It means better profits, more long-term relationships with customers and less wasted marketing.

Knowledge is power

The relaunch and extended reach of Coles’ FlyBuys program has given the chain huge insight into customer information and data. Since the relaunch, seven million people now use the card compared with three  million at the time of sending out the new cards. The supermarket chain has used big data not only to pick the best locations to build expensive supermarkets, but also to better guide its marketing campaigns to make them more specific.

Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business explains how Target in the US is using big data. Target’s analysts identified 25 products which customers were more than 90 per cent likely to buy if they were pregnant, such as calcium. As a result, Target now sends coupons and deal offers for nappies and prams before the baby is born to try and change the shopping habits of that new mother and turn her into a customer for life.

While Wesfarmers-owned Coles has made no Quantium-style acquisition (yet), it is not standing still. In June the company launched another fee-free credit card which works in conjunction with Coles’ FlyBuys program and will help it gain further insights into customer shopping habits.

Big data, small target

Woolworths can track a loyalty customer armed with the knowledge that they tend to buy fresh food and generally spend $60 or less when shopping. Woolworths then sends a promotion in an email or letter, offering a discount of $10 off fruit and vegetable products if that customer spends $80, or a certain extra amount off their petrol.

Woolworths says it has also worked with “a well-known oral care brand” during the launch of a new product.

Customer data was used to identify those who had an affiliation with the brand because they had regularly bought the product in the past.

Woolworths then sent targeted marketing messages and discounts to those customers. The oral care brand saw increased sales and when Woolworths ran the campaign a few weeks later for customers who had bought it the first time around, it was successful again.

The key thing about big data is that it is a “one-to-one personalisation story,” says Dalal. All of that information is narrowed down to creating a better and more personalised experience for a shopper.

Big data excels at this. But, as Dalal says, most companies don’t get that marketing and, by extension, big data, has to be aimed at the individual.

It may be dubbed big data but it just means companies should have even smaller targets. Research into the marketing sector supports this.

Marketing cloud software and services firm Responsys released its inaugural State of Customer Engagement report in June, which surveyed 50 Australian marketers in May this year on their customer engagement and marketing interactions. These included Westpac, Virgin Mobile, NRMA, AMP Betfair and MasterCard.

Ninety-four per cent of respondents knew that targeting the individual was more important than doing a big campaign, but only 46 per cent of them centred their marketing activity around the customer.

Paul Cross, the president of Responsys, points to the report’s finding that a further 58 per cent say they lack adequate tools and technology to engage with customers on an individual level.

“Many are struggling to use data effectively or to gain access to data. Eighty per cent of the respondents said they are using web analytics data, but only 13 per cent believe they are using it effectively,” Cross says.

Limitations in Australia

Dalal reckons Australia could see a lot more entrepreneurial activity in the data space as more companies realise the benefits of big data.

“This is a great opportunity for Aussie entrepreneurs who can marry what big data can do with industry knowledge. There are a lot of Australian companies with that kind of information at hand and I think a lot more Quantiums might spring up.”

The trouble is Australia’s relatively small population and retail landscape. Not many, aside from Woolworths and Coles, have such a widespread reach.

“To really capitalise on this big data opportunity a company has to be of a reasonable size. There is a limited number of companies that can really take advantage of it because the mum-and-dad shops have more basic issues to deal with,” says Dalal.

The incentive for those retailers that do have the capacity to use mass data is the competition from international retailers setting up stores in Australia.

“A lot of US-based retailers in particular are coming down and are going after the market share of your Myer or your David Jones. They’ve already developed big data in the US so they are just rolling it out there and are cherry picking the best customers.”

It will put the squeeze on local players to move quickly like Woolworths and snap up or partner with data firms like Quantium.

The privacy question

JoAnn Stonier, a senior vice-president at MasterCard is in charge of the company’s global privacy and data protection. Stonier spoke at the Sydney Amplify Festival in early June about trying to innovate with big data while at the same time employing data protection and safeguards.

Stonier says the price of increased connectedness is the permanent data footprint left behind.

“All of this information has created a whole new way for our society to live but its a double-edged sword because it’s fine if you want to be tracked but what do you do if you don't?

“We are at the dawn of this era, it’s just beginning . . . This is not just technology companies, every company is becoming a data-driven company.”

MasterCard senior vice-president JoAnn Stonier says we are only beginning to understand issues like balancing data analytics with privacy and appropriate use.

Most data is put to fantastic use, she says. The problem that emerges is: what if the assumption or category a consumer has been given doesn’t actually fit, or they don’t agree on how they have been grouped by a company? Labels commonly used to group customers include “value conscious”, “young couple”, “older generation” and “DINK” – double income, no kids.

Stonier uses the example of smart houses, which are becoming more common in the US.

She argues that a smart house might record higher use of the microwave compared to the oven or stove. When it comes time to decide health premiums, that family might be assumed to have unhealthy eating habits and asked to pay more.

“But what if that mother cooks like crazy for two days and uses all fresh ingredients and then spends the rest of the week just heating up that food?” Stonier asks.

Woolworths and Coles claim this has not been the case with their customers. Both stress that outside of Quantium and their loyalty programs, they do not share individual data.

Woolworth’s general manager of customer engagement Emily Amos says they find that customers want them “to help make their lives easier”.

“When they scan their Everyday Rewards card at the checkout, they expect their loyalty to be rewarded through fuel discounts, targeted offers and making sure their store stocks the items they like. That’s what these insights allow us to do.”

potential increase in retailers’ operating margins possible with big data.

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