Like many industries, the fate of retail was significantly altered when the World Wide Web was launched in 1991. Certainly, the retail industry has evolved for centuries prior…
- From peddlers to "departmental" stores
- …to market places
- …to supermarkets and convenience stores
- …to malls and specialty stores
But it was the mid-1990s and early 2000s that saw big advancements in how people shop and the way that retailers attract and market to customers around the globe. In 1995, e-commerce took a leap when Amazon was launched as an online bookstore and eBay unveiled itself to the world as an online auction site.
And today, here we are: the world of retail is global. Just as the landscape of retail has evolved over the past 25 years, so has the retail research conducted by chains looking to grow and open new locations. Technology has had a dramatic impact, and the result is a significant improvement in the methodology used by companies everywhere—as well as vast advancements in the tools available to them.
Whether you’ve been in the industry for a long time or only post-digital revolution, it’s worthwhile—and interesting—to reflect on how far retail research has come. Here are some of the biggest changes we’ve seen:
Sources of customer data
For many B2C industries like retail, there’s so much customer data available from a much wider array of sources. Once upon a time, retailers and other businesses collected customer information only from point of sale or through loyalty programs. This method had flaws—mainly that the data only reflected past customer behavior (and was rarely used that way anyway). Surveys came along later. Today, cell phone data, online browsing data, and social media behavioral data have totally changed the game. Now, we can understand customers’ wants and behaviors like travel and shopping patterns. There’s more data available and it’s more accurate than ever before. The result: we know much more about our customers.
Accessibility of market data
Not so long ago, data analytics was something only large companies used to gain insights and make important changes at their organizations. Many retailers relied on U.S. Census data for most of what they knew about their markets and a geographic area. Today, small mom-and-pop stores and the fast-growing chains alike have countless data sources from up-to-date population and consumer demographics to sources of competition, activity and consumer spending. advances in technology to thank for their ability to collect vast amounts of data and analyze that data for useful information—at a rapid speed. More and better data sources mean any company, no matter how small, has the ability to dig up quantitative, qualitative, and descriptive data about their customers, prospective customers, and competitors.
Speed of processing
Again, thanks to technological advancements, businesses are now not only able to capture large amounts of data—they’re also able to process and analyze it practically immediately. So much data has been moved to the cloud, which means greater efficiencies for businesses using data analytics to discover trends and insights. And business intelligence systems allow users across an enterprise to quickly and easily access data needed to make informed business decisions. Thanks to massive amounts of data and powerful computing systems, artificial intelligence has made its way into retail site selection.
Anyone who has been in retail or real estate research for a while probably remembers that a decade ago, if you wanted to see what a section of town looked like, you’d need to obtain an aerial photograph taken by an airplane. Maps were printed on paper, with locations and other information color coded by hand by analysts. Mapping is vastly different now, with the launch of Google Maps in 2005. It’s easier than ever for anyone with an internet connection or smart phone to zoom in on any location for a precise street view. Geographic Information Systems, although around since the 1970s and 1980s, evolved more recently to easily allow decision makers to analyze their stores, customers and competition in a map environment.
It’s not just mapping that’s changed. The way we visualize and display market data has transformed as well. Making complex data digestible and understandable once was a tedious, time-consuming endeavor. Today, it’s easy to take data and view it in a variety of ways, drill down into graphs, charts, and maps for more detail, and share concise, clean reports with anyone.
What’s next in retail research? What we know for sure is that the only constant is change. Consumers will continue to demand more from retailers and retailers will continue to innovate to meet these demands. And without question, data and technology will evolve with them. The next minor pivot in retail research could be the next big thing when it comes to the way we all do business.