Dunnhumby Launches Venture Fund for Retail Data, Marketing Startups

First Recipients Could Expand -- and Challenge -- Capabilities of Firm, Owners, Clients

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Dunnhumby, the analytics and direct-marketing firm behind loyalty programs at Tesco and Kroger among others, is launching a venture fund to back startups in retail data, analytics and marketing technology -- including some that potentially challenge its own business or that of its clients.

Running Dunnhumby Ventures as global head of investments is David Balter, the Boston-based founder of BzzAgent, the word-of-mouth marketing marketing company acquired by Dunnhumby two years ago. The London-based company is a unit of U.K. retailer Tesco and also has a 50-50 joint venture with leading U.S. supermarket retailer Kroger Co. to run Cincinnati-based Dunnhumby USA.

Mr. Balter declined to comment on the size of the fund. But Dunnhumby Ventures' initial investments have been in the $250,000 to $500,000 range with room for "follow-ons when folks need more capital," he said. The fund plans 10 investments annually.

The motivation behind the fund is not unlike what led Dunnhumby to acquire BzzAgent, which Mr. Balter said was to answer the question: "What does the future look like and how can we develop solutions that help our retailer and manufacturer partners?"

The first three investments are already in place with InfoScout, Coherent Path and The Shelf, each of which is developing technologies that potentially expand -- or even challenge -- the business models of Dunnhumby, its owners and customers.

San Francisco-based InfoScout is a real-time analytics panel that uses mobile apps such as Shoparoo and Receipt Hog to provide incentives for shoppers to share data on their everyday purchases. Its clients already include the three biggest packaged-goods companies in the world – Nestle, Procter & Gamble Co. and Unilever. And the idea is to give those CPGs direct access to multi-retailer purchase data from consumers rather than relying solely on data from retailers or their agents -- such as Dunnhumby.

"If you're going to deliver the best personalized experience to a loyal customer," Mr. Balter said, "you're going to know what that customer does in all their shopping visits, not just inside one retailer."

Another fund investment, The Shelf, also based in San Francisco, has created a technology to identify prices in retail time and historically across online retailers, taking into account discounts and other promotions. The Shelf has the potential to help consumers or retailers find the lowest prices in real time across individual items or a market basket, a potential that the internet has always held but has yet to fully tap, Mr. Balter said.

"What it tells us about pricing, how promotions can work, it's pretty fascinating," he said. "We don't know exactly how it's going to work, but we think it's the kind of data that will change retail."

Coherent Path actually "looks a bit like Dunnhumby," Mr. Balter said, because it does loyalty analytics for retailers. "We think we can learn a lot from and teach a lot to Coherent Path from what we know."

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Dunnhumby handles loyalty programs for Home Depot and Panera.

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