Mobile Reshapes Shopper Data As Retailers Join Fray

Phone-Wielding Consumer Panels Provide Accountability

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For all the talk about shopper marketing in recent years, much of the impact remained shrouded in mystery for marketers -- including how people really responded to their offers, how well retailers implemented their promotional plans, and even basic sales results.

Michael Stich
Michael Stich

Thanks to the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone, that's changing fast, and with it, the stranglehold conventional retailers had on shopper data and analytics. A host of startups and conventional research players have assembled big, six-figure panels of consumers to track the intricacies of the in-store experience, from what they buy to what products are on the shelves, how they're merchandised, and how shoppers respond to what they see.

Big retailers themselves are also supplementing their own conventional loyalty or customer-relationship management programs with mobile shopper panels, too, said Michael Stich, chief innovation officer of WPP's Rockfish. He said at least four major U.S. retailers, which he declined to name but include players in the club, mass and drug channels, are building such panels.

The mobile panel industry has grown fast enough that it's hard to recall just how difficult it was to track what was happening in stores only six years ago. Prism, an industry initiative last decade that tracked exposure to and effects from in-store marketing, collapsed in 2009 under the weight of costs and complexities of data collection like installing in-store infrared sensors. Today, much of what Prism aimed to do is being done far cheaper by a growing army of smartphone-equipped consumers.

Tesco and Kroger, via their ownership of Dunnhumby, ultimately have a stake in one such startup (though last week it was reported that WPP is exploring a bid for a majority stake in Dunnhumby). InfoScout uses a panel of more than 175,000 consumers to collect receipt data from their store visits and take flash surveys about their experience with brands they buy and stores they visit.

Though he's backed in part by big retailers, InfoScout CEO Jared Schrieber sees his company and other players breaking the hold that big retailers and the syndicators they sell data to have on the market. "We're bypassing the retailer in order to see exactly what they're selling, how much and to whom -- the changes in trends and shifts over time," Mr. Schrieber said.

The constant stream of flash survey data from consumers who have just shopped stores or just purchased products has been one of the big draws for brand marketers, said Henry Ho, co-founder and chief business development officer of Field Agent, based in Fayetteville, Ark., which has more than 500,000 mobile panelists in the U.S. and 200,000 overseas.

The mobile panels are also overcoming some of the problems of conventional online research, he said, by helping verify that people really are who they say they are and really bought what they say they bought, he said.

Brand marketers and retailers have only begun to scratch the surface of the data and analytics mobile and consumer panels can deliver, Rockfish's Mr. Stich said. Devices that today might only be tracking location, harvesting photos taken in store, or delivering flash surveys will increasingly track biometric data.

That might mean delivering promotional rewards for people who meet their exercise goals -- or recommending dietary changes for people trying to lose weight or manage blood sugar. But use of smartphones along with in-store beacons or GPS tracking might also help measure the impact of such things as in-store lighting or scent on sales.

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