Data Innovations Help Brands and Retailers Monitor the Competition

How Barilla, Skullcandy and Others Track E-commerce

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Pasta maker Barilla has acquired a decent grasp on tough-to-analyze Amazon data using a system that tracks its product sales at the stock-keeping unit level. Skullcandy, the marketer of headphones and other audio equipment, has gained a sense of its market share on Walmart's site. And brands are now able to track what their rivals are doing on Instagram through a customizable mobile app.

That all might have seemed like a minor miracle not so long ago. Where traditional retail data providers such as IRI and Nielsen had long made it relatively simple for marketers to see how they stacked up against the competition on store shelves, e-commerce had complicated the picture tremendously. Between a lack of standardized measurement systems among online sales partners and an unwillingness among many to share data, online retail threatened a new Dark Ages for marketing executives.

But marketers are now finding a host of intermediaries that have arisen to shine light on their e-commerce performance, and that of their rivals.

Amazon's dominance means most brands have to sell there, but the site is notoriously opaque. Amazon data is "just not very user friendly" for any company trying to monitor its business, said Erin Miller, who runs e-commerce sales and strategies for Barilla in North America.

Ms. Miller receives data from the e-commerce giant through a portal in raw form that she exports into spreadsheets. She makes sense of it by providing a list of the specific product SKUs it sells on the site to e-commerce analytics firm Clavis Insights. Barilla and other Clavis clients including Procter & Gamble and Unilever work with the firm to spot sales trends over time, measure the impact of promotions, factor in product-review content and see how inventory availability affects sales.

The analytics firm's system also automatically combs through retailer sites to monitor how client brands measure up against competitors. For Nestlé's Purina, Clavis might track what products are in or out of stock. That information is used for inventory management. And it compares search data on clients with that of competitors. "Your share of search is your share of shelf," said Katherine Wilson, director-marketing insights at Clavis.

As people seek specific product attributes such as "gluten-free," marketers are also turning to third parties to keep abreast of the terms that rivals are playing up in listings scattered all over the web. Gladson, for example, houses a regularly refreshed database of information associated with more than 1 million products for sale by groceries, convenience stores and mass merchants.

Another complication of e-commerce: People might browse three retail sites, including Amazon, before making a purchase even if they're in a physical store. For Skullcandy, that means measuring where it stands against the competition along a meandering consumer path to purchase. To do so, the company relies on HookLogic, which provides aggregated data from a network of retail sites including Target, Walmart, Costco, Macy's and Best Buy. HookLogic's marketer clients bid on ad placements targeted to specific product SKUs across the company's e-commerce site network, ensuring that Skullcandy products, for example, are prominently displayed in ads alongside rivals.

The system moreover lets the headphone-maker see how many people viewed its product pages across a category. Operating under the theory that visiting a product page is a strong indicator that a person is interested in buying, Skullcandy then promotes those pages further. "It's the equivalent of stepping up to the shelf and looking at it," said Chris Silverthorne, national sales manager at Skullcandy Gaming and Astro Gaming, the company's gaming headphone division. "We can really index up and take away market share from other brands."

While others track what's happening on retail sites, Unmetric looks at the social side, ingesting content posted by 35,000 brands on their social media pages. A recent offering comes in the form of a mobile app. Clients can choose a list of brands to monitor for content on Facebook, new Amazon ad campaigns or photos on Instagram. The system makes note of whether a specific piece of content is generating a lot of interest, so companies can counteract the competition, said Lakshmanan Narayan, CEO and co-founder of Unmetric.

As data-harvesting intermediaries have sprung up, the new world is in some ways better for brands than the old. In the past, field shoppers would have provided regional pricing information upon which marketers might react. Today there are firms such as 360pi, which tracks the top 100 items by category to measure which products are moving online and at what cost.

Now that retailers can watch price changes happening across the web, using information provided by companies such as 360pi, regionalized and dynamic pricing is a big trend, said Joleen Wroten, lead analyst at 360pi. "You get a better quality of data and nearly instantaneously," she said.

Perhaps the newest data available for retailers and brands comes from Google's Shopper Insights tool, which surfaces hot spots in the U.S. where searches for certain product keywords are happening the most. "Retailers are very interested," said Mike Mojica, exec VP-general manager, retail and consumer goods at Merkle, in part because it helps reveal what shoppers intend to buy.

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