If you built it I would come

I’ve already given this idea to the on-duty manager of the grocery store where I shop but she probably filed it under looney ideas gleaned from talkative old men in the checkout line and did little or nothing else with it, so I’m offering it to any of my programmer friends who might want to make a name for themselves and in the process create a useful tool for crazies like me who look for innovative ways to use our Internet connection.  I, like most everybody else and maybe even you, dutifully hand the cashier my “value card” as he or she is about to ring up my purchases so that I can get the discounts that accrue from having given them my name and address and having allowed them to tag me with a unique Customer ID.  They use it, among other things, to print out a listing of the items I have purchased that day, neatly categorized into sections like Produce, Package Meat, Grocery, Frozen Food, Dairy, Candy/Gum, etc., and at the conclusion of that listing they announce that Your Savings Today was $7.48 on my most recent (9/16/07) expenditure of $56.66.  I walk away, informed and satisfied that it could have been at least $7.48 worse.

Now I’m reasonably sure that’s not all they do with the information gathered from scanning the bar codes of my purchases and pairing them with my unique Customer ID.  Quite likely, they use the information to update their records that I made off with one bottle of Tide laundry detergent, thus depleting their supply, and conclude they should replenish that item at that particular store.  And throughout their supply chain they use my data to inform their business partners of my shopping behavior.  But as far as I am concerned, my data is lost forever in the supply chain.  It’s not available for me to use any more.

So here’s my idea.  Let me see the accumulated information the store collects on me.  Many of my purchases are cyclical.  For instance, I buy deodorant, shampoo, shaving cream, milk, and laundry detergent on some regular interval.  How often?  I don’t know, but I’ll bet the store knows, if they wanted to look.  They have a web site, and I’m pleased to report they do offer a way for me to look up weekly specials on that web site and create a shopping list from them.  But if I were able to log into their web site with my unique Customer ID (and a password I chose), I could discover it was about time for me to buy more shampoo or deodorant, and creating a shopping list on their web site would be enhanced by becoming a simple matter of checking off items and specific brands that I normally buy. 

To me, it seems there must be a database that contains all that information and it can’t be all that difficult to make access to the data available on the web to the customer who helped to create it.  Or said in another way in the hypothetical words of Moses Schwartz, my local mythical grocer, “Let my data go.”  Make it easier for me to spend my money with you! And if you build it on the web, I promise you I will come.


7 thoughts on “If you built it I would come

  1. Daryl

    It’s a problem of vast scale, really. Think about how frequently you purchase from amazon and how many items you purchase per visit. Then compare that to how many people grocery shop daily and what the average item-count is. And then consider that the data would have to be gathered and warehoused from hundreds of individual retailers. I suppose the stores actually already have this info, and it’s just not a priority for them to undertake the formidable steps of web-enabling it, especially when they’d then also have to support the application. Suddenly you’ve got bag boys being asked to reset passwords. And all that effort only to remind you to buy a bottle of Tide that you’ll buy next week anyway when you realize you’re out of clean laundry. I think the payoff for the store would be minimal, however useful the service would be for customers (and I don’t doubt that a bit). Perhaps the reason the sort of model you propose is a priority for retailers like amazon but not for grocery stores is that grocers deal in needs and amazon deals in luxuries. When you’re down to beans and rice, you’ll remember to buy some more chicken, but there’s no basic need driving the purchase of books, especially when there’s TV to get lost in.

  2. Perry Post author

    It was Malcolm Forbes, I think, who said, “It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.” So I appreciate that you, as a programmer, see the issue through a different set of eyes than I do. In my ignorance of course, I only see the fact that the data are already gathered by Customer ID, so there doesn’t appear to be any data acquisition cost at all, and the web site already exists with a mechanism for creating a shopping list, so integrating web access for each customer doesn’t seem that formidable a task to me, but then what do I know.

    Your most telling argument, I think, lies in the fact that there is little if any payoff for the store to incur any response cost associated with creating and supporting the application. Unless it would entice people to stop shopping at Kroger, because they don’t offer this convenience, and start shopping at Food City, because they do, I guess I can’t see them ever going to the trouble or expense to implement it, just for the convenience of their customers. And if you add in the fact that only some percentage of the customers of any store would avail themselves of the service, even if it existed, I suppose that lessens the already-slim odds of implementation that much more.

  3. Jerry

    I think their should be a profitable way they can use these data. For a while, I spent about $200 a month ordering vitamins and such from Swanson in Fargo. They are very big. They never used my data as a prompt or more importantly, when I ceased ordering, that data was not processed. They never tried to initiated or reactivate my account through incentives or related strategies.

    Nor did they give me a Platinum card or in any other way recognize me for my high dollar shopping. Your suggestion initiates the problem solving/creative juices that the grocery marketeers should be applying to the information they are collecting.

    It is possible for the store to offer you a special offering based on your shopping preferences. They could send you a personal email that said something about a special price to you on Listerine since you had purchase it each month for the last year. More than just the savings, the fact that you are being acknowledged–a personal relationship is created that increases your loyalty to that store.

    My guess is that somewhere in the dark recesses of your brain there is an idea–the application of technology to consulting, say–that could put you into the game. I’ll call you tomorrow with one that I have. Something that allow one to work from home.

  4. Juan

    In the early 1990’s I learned that Ukrop’s grocery store in Richmond, VA was doing something like this for years. Each customer had their own ID, and based on what they buy they would send you mailers with specials in the mail targeted to your buying habits. This was even documented in a book by the late author Ron Zemke.

    I am sure by now they are more sophisticated with their targeted marketing.

    If I had the time or inclination I would do the research. However, if you go to http://www.ukrops.com you can see there is a place for member login, and a place to create a shopping list, etc.

  5. Perry Post author

    Thanks for you comment, Jerry. I’ll look forward to talking with you today. Please delay your call until after 10:00 AM to make sure I am back from my morning walk and available to talk. Thanks.

    Juan, I did check out Ukrops and it definitely appears to be doing much of what I suggested. Unfortunately, Richmond, VA, is a bit too far to drive for groceries. 😉

  6. Colm Smyth

    Hey Perry, sorry I haven’t been around recently, congrats on a nice 66th birthday!

    It’s an interesting idea, but I think stores would need to see a more direct way to gain financially from it. Some ways they could do that include:
    – recommendations (like Amazon); you buy these products, wouldn’t you like to try these related products
    – reminders and notifications: you sometimes buy XYZ, we’re having a sale on that right now
    – subscriptions: you buy XYZ fairly often, if you commit to buying it N times a year, we’ll give you a discount

  7. Perry Post author

    Hi, Colm. It’s good to hear from you again, and thanks for the birthday wishes.

    You’re right, of course, that for any grocery chain (or anyone else for that matter) to undertake something like this, there must be a payoff in it for them.


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