First published in Retail Week 10th May 2017
Think of that last significant purchase you made. New laptop? A holiday? New sofa? At this time of year maybe it was a new barbecue.
Now do something I’d imagine you rarely do (consciously that is).
Think of the process you went through from first thinking about that new barbecue or laptop right up to purchasing it.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the journey was not only complex but may have played out over a protracted period of time, involved multiple interactions with multiple brands and was a mix of online and in-store research and browsing.
It might also have involved asking friends and family for their experiences and recommendations.
In the consumer environment of today nothing is straightforward, nothing is predictable and everything is up for grabs. So why is this important?
Finding a logical solution
What puzzle could be more tricky, more complex for the human brain to comprehend than 3D chess
as played by Mr Spock and Captain Kirk?
Well, how about mapping the customer journey? The path to purchase, has for many years been the subject of intense study amongst retailers.
But guess what? Instead of getting easier, it is more complex than ever and an understanding of it is rapidly receding far out of sight.
Predictable? Forget it.
It may just be shopping but the complexity is now such that retailers struggle to keep up – to understand their customers’ preferences, indeed to even grasp why they behave the way they do.
That smartphone in our pockets not only gives us incredible choice, it gives us incredible influence and, dare we say it, incredible power.
It allows us to flit from one brand to another with impunity.
Fuelled by the still vivid memory of austerity now amplified by the uncertainty of Brexit, we are constantly seeking out better offers, better deals – better experiences.
And not only that but our expectations have never been higher than they are now.
Data, data everywhere
With so much of shoppers’ behaviour unpredictable, with so many different influences on us and our own promiscuous shopping behaviour, how can brands possibly understand the customer journey of today?
Most use some form of analytics and many have reached levels of impressive maturity but they all have one major drawback.
Traditional analytics rely on being pre-programmed and therefore can only act and analyse based on that pre-programmed input.
Not only that but it can only recognise structured data.
In other words all the unstructured data such as pictures, video and news articles is largely invisible.
Now consider this: there is at present more than 1 zettabyte (ZB) of data online and this will rise to over 40ZB by 2020.
To make that a little more real, it would take you 152m years to watch 1ZB of data in HD video and traditional computer analysis can only see 20% of that.
Crack it with Cognitive
Think of all those pictures and video you and your children are uploading to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Snapchat every day.
And now think how much about your life, your family, your hobbies, your preferences you are sharing with the world – your digital footprint.
And yet the world isn’t listening.
Now think of a world where not only is all that data being recognised, it is also being interpreted and acted upon whilst all the time learning about you.
To the point where your needs and wants can be accurately predicted and relevant offers for goods and services presented to you completely in context.
Seems far fetched?
Welcome to the world of cognitive computing and machine learning.
Think of it as your very own Einstein right there at your side being able to constantly update and learn, interpreting not only your digital output but within the context of all the data in the world around you.
The future is here now and the consumer revolution we are currently witnessing has never been more profound.
The only question remaining is how long will it take retail brands to grasp this and act upon it?
Andrew Busby is founder and chief executive of Retail Reflections and an IBM Futurist