Thursday, 14 December 2006

Supermarkets, technology, marketing: searching, finding, IKEA rage and the like

In November 2006 Google's advertising team started a Google CPG blog (consumer packaged goods) in order to "share ideas and touch on an array on topics related to the CPG industry, advertising, and Google". A smart move, as CPG are clearly big business.

A recent "Make markets super" post on that blog, about improving marketing by supermarkets, mentioned an interesting top 10 rules of supermarket marketing from an interview with the head of ad agency Meyer & Wallis, and added some extra suggestions plugging use of supermarkets' websites and the Web - including Web ads and searching, but of course.

That prompted this post. Now I'm no marketing expert (well I'm no expert an anything, I'm always learning), but as a consumer and supermarket customer there is one simple use of technology that supermarkets and big grocery stores could make, but don't, which I've wanted for ages, and which would make such a difference to me.

It's just this: a search terminal at the end of every couple of aisles where you can type in what you're looking for, and it tells you on which aisle number the product can be located.

The big supermarkets like Tesco's, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and ASDA (just using UK examples) surely must have automated stock control systems that can keep track of their goods and stock levels. Why can't they adapt those to provide in-store information for customers? And frankly, why can't the big department stores do something similar?

Haven't you had the frustrating experience of wandering round a supermarket or grocery store trying to find what you need to buy, even trying to find a staff member who's able and willing to tell you where it is? Businesses are trying to use machines/software in so many ways to do what people did - this is a prime area where it might actually work well.

For busy people with limited time, like me, wandering aimlessly for ages round a supermarket is the last thing you want to do at the weekend. You just want to get what you need and go. So why not cater for people like that, and make it easier for them to buy what they want? (Yes I could buy online and sometimes do, but for fresh fruit and vegetables, and some meat, I prefer to check it and choose it for myself, thank you.)

Probably they want to make you walk round the whole store hunting, in the hope that you'll impulse buy goods you hadn't planned to, which you wouldn't otherwise notice if you could make a beeline just for your shopping list items.

An interesting recent New Scientist article "Locating locating locating" was about how people look for things (Lévy flight patterns rather than Brownian motion, apparently - very short steps interpersed with very long steps rather than medium length steps, which is it seems how our ancestors hunted). But it also mentioned "IKEA rage" and why shops that force you along a prescribed route can be so maddening, time-consuming and exhausting... yet also tend to result in splurge impulse buying, a reward or treat to yourself for getting there! It must be that shops like IKEA get enough benefit from the impulse buys that they are happy to deliberately frustrate their customers. But personally, while I think many of their products look good and are great value for money, I've bought nothing from them for a long time, because I really don't want to go through their long and winding showroom routes again (and trying to find parking in their car park is even worse). So in the case of this consumer anyway, their strategy has put me off rather than made them more money.
IKEA tip - it's behiiiiind you!!: The New Scientist article also mentioned research on IKEA routes and how people navigate through IKEA stores, carried out by Farah Kazim a master research student of Alan Penn, an architect at University College London. "If you want to find your way out of Ikea, look behind you." "Kazim found that our forward-facing vision is the key to why we all follow the windy route through the showroom. There are plenty of short cuts to allow you out, but they are always cleverly located behind you - in the direction opposite from the arrows that lead you through the showroom floor. As a result, you just don't notice them." Very clever. (There's a nice plan of an IKEA store in the article too, showing the extremely "sinuous route")

So I can't imagine that supermarkets are going to introduce search terminals for customers any time soon (though surely they could also then extend that to allow customers to do stock checks at their local supermarkets over the Web like other consumer goods websites do? Why not let you pick your local store, enter a shopping list online and give you a list of aisle numbers for each item which you can print out? Why not have something like that in the in-store cafes, so you can sit down and have a nice cup of tea or coffee and check your shopping list?). But I do think groceries are quite different from furniture and that annoying customers pays off less in that sector. Well, I can but hope...


Geoffrey Coan said...

Interesting article and some good questions about supermarkets.

[I work for IBM's consulting division (but what I'm writing here isn't any kind of official IBM point of view - just in case they're watching!). I've done consultancy work at two of the four large supermarkets you mentioned so I have some understanding of the systems and processes they have behind the scenes.]

You're quite right in your expectations about the stock management systems that the major supermarkets have; to a greater or lesser extent they have a fairly real time stock position for every item in every store, and they use that (along with historical sales information) to predict what stock they need to replenish the store with each day. Some retailers have systems that replenish just once a day, some do it more than once a day, but the principles are just the same.

So if they have this information, in response to your challenge, why don't they make it available to customers? Whilst I don't know what the official line is, my top 3 speculations would be:

1. What's the business benefit? Retailers are very £ sensitive and if they don't see any benefit in doing something they simply won't spend the money. Arguably it's actually going to turn customers away if you know they don't have what you want in stock

2. Quality of the data's not good enough. Internal stock systems are really only there for replenishment purposes ("does store X need another case of baked beans today or not?"). Counting errors, inaccuracies with receipting stock in at the back door, etc all can lead to incorrect stock counts. Would they want to share this with their customers?

3. They don't have a customer-friendly product file. Most retailer product databases are organised around the way they want to think about products, not the way we want to. Product descriptions are typically abbreviated, nonsensical or sometimes even wrong (just look at your most recent till receipt as an example). Whilst this is improving with the need to support online shopping, the reality is that the product file shown for online shopping isn't the same as the product file used to replenish the store. For example most of the retailers only have the grocery products available online, what about the TV's, clothing, flowers, etc that they all sell today? These are usually not available for online purchase at all.

What does surprise me that I don't think any of them do have is a decent enquiry facility for their own customer service desk. Go up to them and ask if they've got any size 8 boys shoes in stock and they'll have to go and check the aisle. Ask then if any of the nearby stores have them and they'll very helpfully phone the other branches and then wait whilst some other customer service rep has to walk down to the shoe aisle in the other store to check ... [I know, I speak from previous experience on this one!]

Improbulus said...

Geoffrey, thanks for your comment and your interesting observations, insights and speculations.

It's odd indeed that they don't have an enquiry facility for their own customer service people. To me the sort of information would be the most useful for a shopper in-store is simply the search facility I mentioned - not necessarily stock position (that was probably being over-optimistic!) but simply on which aisle the item I want is normally located. At least their staff know which aisle to check for stock, most of us customers of course wouldn't.

I don't mind trekking down to the indicated aisle to see if they have any stock left or not, and I won't leave if it's not there, just go on to the next item or ask their staff (if I can ever find one) if there's anything out back. What gets me down is the wandering around trying to find where the products I want might be, especially as some stores seem to rearrange things on a regular basis.

Doesn't sound like they'll be providing this kind of in-store "self-service search" facility any time soon!