"When they bring the products home after shopping trips, they literally scan the bar codes on their products and answer a number of questions into a hand-held terminal," said Paula O'Meara, communications manager for Nielsen. "We poll that information and can see what kinds of people are shopping and what kinds of things they are buying."
Taylor Nelson combines its home scanning panel research with TV data, allowing a baked beans manufacturer to learn the most popular TV shows in households that consume three cans of beans a week.
"Say there is a four-week burst of national TV for a product," said Mike Penford, managing director of Taylor Nelson's consumer panels division. "We can predict if they have seen the ads and how many exposures they had."
Also hot in the U.K. are retailer-specific loyalty cards given to consumers who disclose personal information. The consumer's incentive is a small discount from purchases, and the card collects huge amounts of data each time the consumer uses the store.
Tesco, Great Britain's second-largest grocery retailer, has introduced an electronic loyalty card called Clubcard that enables it to track purchases of card holders. With the information, Tesco can finetune the range of each store to its neighborhood.
But growing pains abound. South African businesses, lagging due to the former protectionist white minority regime, are just starting to use information technology in marketing.
"We have had protection and there is probably a lack of leading-edge thinking," said Jackie Spence, a consulting and marketing lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand Business School in Johannesburg. "They aren't going to be able to compete with other companies that are now coming back into South Africa."
Ms. Spence said her property company redesigned its computers to cope with its turbulent business environment. One step was to develop a clipping service that greets employees with a reading list to meet their interests.
"The information technology system is a strategic tool from the marketing point of view, and marketing people need to be involved in setting it up," she said.
In South Africa, where the Internet has yet to reach critical mass, laptop or handheld computers are used increasingly for planning sales calls. Voicemail, shopping-mall touch screens and automatic bank tellers are on the rise.
"Many people are developing databases on customers, sales planning, segmentation and designing products, but only at a low level," she said.
And there is a fear of the future. "There is a lot of resistance to new technology. I think it is safer to put through traditional," said Clive MacLean, managing director, Leo Burnett Interactive, Johannesburg.
Mr. MacLean said he is still teaching advantages of collecting information. "A lot of companies use databases for tracking or counting, not for marketing or relationship building," he said.
He said a bank, for example, should look for customers buying wedding dresses-and solicit them for new home loans.M
Contributing to this story: Amy Barone, Peter Brennan, Dagmar Mussey, Drusilla Menaker, Todd Pruzan, Charles Siler, B.G. Yovovich and Jeff Zbar.