Customer-Centric Retailing: Roll the dice or rely on the data?

Customer-centric Retailing at a crossroads: go with lady luck or dive into Data. Bezos paved the way with his intuitions: some real, some not

Customer-centric retailing can be a tough horse to tame.

Have you ever played roll-the-dice, that game where you literally roll dice and let fate decide what happens to you next? I have, on a trip to Canada and the USA when I was 25. I had made no plans about where to go or what to do from one day to the next. Instead, every morning I rolled the dice.

By day three I was starting to think it wasn’t such a great idea after all. 

I’d been picking potential destinations based on the first place name mentioned on the TV news. Then rolling the dice. It had led me to an eight-hour train ride, sitting next to a man with chronic asthma and body odour so bad I could understand why even he didn’t want to breathe the air around him.

So much for blind luck. Next time, give me the kind of luck with no sense of smell.

Cybermyths and business realities

But hey… no harm done, right? It was just a kid on vacation spending a tax rebate and it didn’t matter what worked and what didn’t. Roll the dice, take a chance, no sweat.

That would be a terrible way to live your whole life though and an even worse way to run a business, wouldn’t it?

As someone once said, a business is like a car – it will only run by itself if it’s going downhill. I don’t know who said that. But I’m sure someone did. And it’s right, right? The most successful businesses are directed, governed and led by people with a sense of purpose and direction. It’s an extreme example, but consider Amazon.

There’s a story that goes round on ‘the internet’ about Jeff Bezos giving a talk to UK journalists early on in the life of Amazon. In the story, some old geezer journalist made a dismissive comment about people preferring real bookstores to something on the internet.

According to this cybermyth, Jeff shot the guy a knowing look and said something like: “Who said it’s a bookstore?”

It’s a great story. I don’t believe it, but it is a great story. Why don’t I believe it? Because on several of Amazon’s earliest logos, the company described itself as “earth’s biggest bookstore”, that’s why. 

Who said it’s a bookstore..? You did, Jeff. You did.

Pay attention!

Anyway, it’s a great story because it reinforces the legend of Jeff’s long-term strategy to build a retail that was all about gathering intelligence on shopper’s preferences; sell them some books, find out as much as you can, sell them everything else.

That’s another great story. I don’t know if it’s true that it was always Jeff’s vision for Amazon. But it certainly came true at some point. Just look at what Amazon has done. It’s done it by staying faithful to one simple idea: Pay attention to the customer.

I know another great story about Amazon. Someone told me this quite recently. One of the reasons Amazon is so successful is because the people who are customer facing have the power to make immediate decisions without deferring to the hierarchy. Again, I have no idea how accurate that is. But it sounds about right. 

After all, when you are in the business of paying perpetual attention to the customer, acquiring and analysing every scrap of information possible, you really ought to empower your staff to make decisions when they need to with the minimum of fuss and obstruction.

The first step to that point is, of course, being (or becoming) a business that really understands the value that is locked away in data. Not just customer data, but operational data too. If a business doesn’t know or appreciate that value, it can be certain of one thing. Sooner or later, a rival will appear who does appreciate the value of data and they will win. 

Plenty of businesses don’t know how to extract the value they need from their data. But that’s not a problem. There are people out there who will be happy to help and finding the right one is a wise investment of time and money. The real problem is not paying attention to the data.

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