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We talk a lot about Big Data around here, both on this site and in the retail community in general. There's certainly enough of it being collected to merit a lot of talk: According to research by Wipro, 78 percent of retailers are collecting and storing location-based information on their shoppers, and 64 percent are gathering and studying data generated by social media. That's on top of the already voluminous amount of information that a POS system generates simply in the course of doing its job.
Most of the time, when we talk about big data, we're talking about its potential uses: How can it improve marketing, how can it improve the customer experience, how can it improve product availability. We view it as an asset to be manipulated and put to work for us.
What we are failing to talk about is the fact that what is simply data to a retailer, has vast emotional meaning to customers. In a database, it is numbers; to shoppers, it is their life boiled down to numbers. And that means that using it in any sort of cavalier way can be devastating.
That member of your loyalty program who purchased a carton of cigarettes for the first time in a year? It's a data point to you, but to him, it is the sign of a shattering defeat. That engagement ring purchase? To a man or woman left at the altar or on their own for any number of reasons, your kind reminders to come in for a free cleaning are salt in a wound.
This is the story of a lady named Brianna. It is only one story, and there is no way of knowing how many more there are like hers taking place every day.
In her early 20s, Brianna got pregnant. The situation wasn't ideal, but she was excited, so she went and set up a baby registry on Amazon. "I was young, I hadn't heard the wisdom of waiting until after the first trimester to, you know, act pregnant," she said.
And then she lost the baby. She had the clarity of mind to go back to Amazon and delete the registry, but emails from vendors continued to pour in. As the months went on, the carefully timed offers cheerfully kept reminding her variations on "the baby's almost here — do you have everything you need?"
"It was a punch in the face, every time," she said. She unsubscribed multiple times, but the emails kept coming, eventually forcing her to use spam controls as a sort of nuclear option.
"Since I'm a web developer, the assumption that I must have allowed Amazon to share my email with those vendors (because I didn't) click the right checkbox when setting up the registry just added to the overall self-loathing and guilt I was feeling for not doing pregnancy right, not being good enough to be a mother," she said.
The happy ending to this story is that Brianna today has two healthy children. She's getting special offers for both of them — often creeped out that they contain so much specific information, since she said she never signed up for a single thing with the second child.
Brianna said she has given a lot of thought to how retailers might be more sensitive to things going on in the lives of their shoppers when they make it their business to know about those things. If she had bought a book on grieving pregnancy loss, would Amazon have known to back off? What about all those mommy blogs she was reading about coping? (She recommends the blog Glow in the Woods for any parents who have experienced child loss, by the way.)
Big data is, of course, not the kind of thing that lends itself to individual decisions about individual customers. That doesn't scale. But that makes it so much more important that retailers be very, very careful about how they use it. To your software, your customers are numbers. In reality, they are much more than that.
I'd like to hear from you — have you ever had a negative emotional experience as a result of retailer activity? Please talk about it in the comments below.
(Photo by miguelb.)