18 Aug 2014
Bigger Data: the Challenge of Harnessing Real-time Retail Information
With search and mobile functions converging, harnessing the power of Big Data remains both a huge opportunity for retailers and brand owners alike, as well as one that remains almost entirely bewildering to many business owners.
With a whole expo dedicated to it, you might be forgiven for assuming that the primary benefits and applications of Big Data were now pretty much well-understood. You would, of course, be mistaken.
Michael Hepburn is the Head of Integrated Content at Jaywing Plc, a UK-based e-commerce and digital marketing consultancy. As part of his presentation at this year's expo he revealed the findings of recent survey. This asked business users just how they saw Big Data applying to their own organisations.
Overall, some 28% respondents believed it was related to transactional data, while 24% saw it as referring to technologies and how they addressed data volumes. A further 19% believed it concerned archiving and storage. The smallest group (18%) interpreted it as referring to mobile and search.
At its simplest, Big Data refers large, unstructured data, often gleaned from multiple sources. Forbes defines it as: "Data that exceeds the processing capacity of conventional database systems. Such data is too big, moves too fast, or doesn't fit the structures of traditional database architectures." Under such a broad definition, it is clear that all of Hepburn's respondents have a valid point of view. Tellingly, though, it's the mobile and search category – the least endorsed application – that is now proving the most dynamic.
Keen to highlight the growth of the search sector was Gary Smith, Worldwide Vice President for Sales and Marketing at YourAmigo, a California-based artificial intelligence company. He said: "Google is now seeing over 3.3 billion searches per day, with roughly 500 million of those being entirely new searches.
"These are prospective customers who are using long-tail, non-branded phrases and they don't know who to buy from. How can companies make use of this huge inventory Google is building? How can we lever Google's enormous informational clout to make the most of this global community of customers?"
Defining the exact opportunity offered by Big Data, however, represents just the first step, however. For many, the challenge comes in converting this information into something of genuine commercial value.
According to Adam Parker, Head of Strategic Analytics and Evaluation at RealWire, a global online press release distribution company, there is no shortage of companies looking to help mine this data. He said: "With more than 500 global companies claiming to be 'leaders' in 'quality data analytics research', just how do you know what to believe and who to trust?
"For me, the key is to find companies that know all about Big Data, but can genuinely extract small insights. The challenge, though, is that Big Data is getting bigger all the time.
"Along with Google's three billion-plus searches, you need to add in Twitter and Facebook and now mobile. Speed is also an increasingly important element for many companies. Just as retailers have learnt to respond to and anticipate changes in the weather, they have to be equally responsive to changes in data.
"Search results can vary hugely over 24 hours or more. If you're a brand manager seeking to exploit new opportunities – and your company is unable to access and understand and act upon your data until 24 hours after your competition – the costs to your business will be significant."
It was the convergence of search and mobile, however, that most interested a number of speakers at the event. Addressing the issue, Marc Blinder, Adobe's European Director of Social Media, said: "Is Facebook – with its 1.2 billion active users – the world's favourite social networking site? No, it's the world's largest app dedicated to capturing data. Facebook's focus is now on reconfiguring its results and search options – all predicated on the data it has on its users."
Illustrating just how far Facebook is now able to track, categorise and hunt down its audience, he took his audience through a telling demonstration. Searching for single women aged between 30 to 40 who were interested in 'bathroom sex', he initially identified more than 600,000 appropriate individuals. Using a host of other filters, he then refined his search down. Ultimately, he was left with photos and information on a select few Facebook users that might have appealed to him, had his search been in earnest.
Explaining the implications of his demonstration, he said: "The enormity of the opportunity offered by 'Big Data' is only now really starting to dawn on the market. In its early days, Google claimed that its searches – and, therefore, its search results – were so good that the need for ads would be greatly reduced.
"The company believed this would lead to users requiring and seeing fewer ads, with the remaining ads sold at a premium. The reality, though, is that we are seeing both Google and Facebook ramping up highly-targetted advertising to new heights, with Twitter likely to follow suit."
In terms of concrete examples of how Big Data was now impacting on the retail sector, Ian Foddering, Chief Technical Officer at Cisco, the US-based networking specialist, cited two recent studies. These, he said, demonstrated how enhancing-improved analytics and real time data can lead to radical improvements in sales.
Introducing the two examples, he said: "Technology and, specifically, the better adoption and adaption of data can animate the high street just as easily as it can damage it."
The first study saw Intu, the UK's largest operator of retail complexes, run a trial over Chinese New Year (CNY) in two of its complexes – Lakeside in Essex and Trafford Park in Manchester. The objective was to target ethnic Chinese shoppers and other shoppers interested in CNY and persuade them to trial and explore products related to the specific purpose of their shopping trip.
The results, he said, were impressive. Those retailers participating in the trial – carried out via social media and mobile channels – saw a 20% rise in their sales. This hike in their figures was over and above the upturn they would have traditionally expected during CNY.
His second example saw one of Cisco's washing-machine manufacturing clients seeking to turn the historical purchase and use of major white goods products entirely on its head. They attempted to do this by employing real time data and retaining ownership of the products in question.
This real time data allowed customers to be charged based on their usage of the products. Potentially, he said, the upside for consumers and manufacturers was staggering.
He said: "Under this arrangement, costs are hugely reduced – repairs and replacements become easier to manage and plan for and, ultimately, as manufacturers retain ownership, it is easier to reclaim and recycle machines as part of a long-term commercial partnership with customers."
Summing up the overall message from the show, Thane Ryland, Head of Global Media Insights at Microsoft put it most succinctly, saying: "Data is the new oil, but most businesses are still burning on coal. The digital transformation that is underpinning the adoption of Big Data is similar to enlightenment. It's something you're always trying to attain, but you never actually know if you're there."
The Big Data show was held at the ExCel arena in London from 17 to 19 June this year, alongside INTEROP and Internet World. Over 125 exhibitors were featured at the combined events and more than 9,000 visitors attended during the course of the three days.
Nick Jaspan, Special Correspondent, London