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Grocery retailers can employ a countless number of tactics to compete in today's dynamic market. The issue is not the ability to do many different things at once, which retailers are often good at, but resources are finite. It's important to determine the right strategies to prioritize investments and which tactics they should stop entirely.

Many organizations, not just in retail, struggle to focus resources and attention on the areas that are most important to the health of the business. This often results in organizations chasing too many priorities, with few areas receiving the attention required to make meaningful improvements. Retailers that cannot markedly improve the business in areas that drive value perceptions and visits will find it difficult to navigate an increasingly fragmented and competitive market. The issue is further exacerbated by thin profit margins and scarce resources that require an even more thoughtful and strategic allocation of resources.

At the root of the problem is the inability to systematically assess and diagnose key issues across the business. Without the right data, systems, and processes, coupled with silos and day-to-day demands, diagnosing key macro issues is quite difficult. As a result, few organizations spend the resources or time needed to carefully align their strengths and weaknesses with the demands of Customers, competitors, and technology.



Artwork courtesy of Roger Penwill

The inability to confidently diagnose also leads to a largely internal focus and a planning process that centers on marginally adjusting next year's spend, hoping next year will be better.

Over time, this internal focus can result in a disconnect with Customers and too much influence from external organizations with conflicted priorities. This Customer disconnect causes a misalignment between the evolving Customer needs and the retailer's value proposition, which opens the door for competitors and new market entrants. This was the case with Walmart, Trader Joe's, and Costco who have all significantly expanded their market share over the last 20 years at the expense of traditional supermarkets. Ironically, this also happened with discounters in the U.K, who now control over 12% of the grocery market.

If a retailer can confidently diagnose key issues and identify opportunities, knowing that performance will improve, they would be more confident reallocating available resources. More importantly, they will have the knowledge and information to scale back in areas less important to the health of the business.

"The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." Michael Porter – What is Strategy, HBR 1996

However, reducing or reallocating resources is difficult for most organizations. Relationships, culture, and legacy are baked into many systems, processes, and activities that are simply disconnected from the Customer and the overall performance of the business.

For example, many inwardly-focused traditional grocers failed to recognize the shift in the consumer and the market in the post-recession period. Looking at gross margins in the post-recession period, industry-wide gross margin as a percent of sales fell from 28.9% in 2007 to 26.7% in 2014.

U.S. Grocery Margin as Percent of Sales

Yet, other traditional retailers continued to incrementally increase their gross margins as they did in the pre-recession period, which may have helped them hit their short-term financial goals but damaged their long-term value perception. By 2006, Costco, Walmart and Trader Joe's had expanded into many markets and leveraged their strong value proposition in the post-recession period to steal significant share from supermarkets.

If traditional grocers diligently monitored the external market, changing Customer needs and diagnosed key issues, they might have responded by aggressively cutting back on expenses and investments. Consequently, they might have better managed the price perception gap and share loss over the long-term, rather than having to close stores today.

For example, a major retailer had a 2-percentage point gap in gross margin during the pre-recession market period and today it is over 5-percentage points. The premium price gap begins to reach a point where some retailers are simply no longer price competitive. Our research has shown that this lack of price competitiveness erodes not only financials, but also the emotional connection which used to be a strength for many regional grocers. Once the emotional connection starts to fade, it becomes increasingly difficult to win Customers and their wallets back.

So, how can retailers improve the ability to consistently identify key issues and take advantage of opportunities? It starts with a combination of people, process and data analysis to build the evidence-backed business case that can be used to develop a consensus across departments and alignment throughout the company. Depending on internal resources, this can include enlisting a partner like dunnhumby to help connect all available data sources, like Customer information from transactional data, market research, and online sources. In our upcoming Strategy posts, we'll look at strategic frameworks and other requirements to isolate key business issues and identify new and important opportunities.


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white and blue magnetic card

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Most companies attempting to drive customer loyalty fail miserably—and few so-called customer-centric companies generate sustainable customer loyalty that drives measurable business results. Why? Because they get three key principles completely wrong, right from the start:

  1. Loyalty is about the company acting loyally to its customers, not vice versa.
  2. It is about a loyalty approach, not a loyalty program.
  3. Loyalty is about the store, not only about the CRM.

1. Loyal to Customers

We start to act loyally to customers when we understand them to a level of detail that ensures that we remain responsive to changes in their behavior, relevant to ever-changing customer needs and rewarding in the way we treat customers.


Acting loyally is about adopting a loyalty mind set of managing customer segments as strategic business units (aligning with how we think about a category management strategy as managing categories as strategic business units). This context demands change that is both incremental and transformational—evolution, but with a bit of manageable revolution.

What customer loyalty is, and is not:

  • Acting loyally (responsive, relevant, rewarding) to our customers; not about customers being loyal to us
  • An overall approach throughout our business; not a proposition or program
  • Earning customer loyalty; not thinking that customers should become loyal
  • Collaborative partnerships to win customers together; not tolerant of internal conflict between areas of the business or with suppliers
  • Transparent; not opaque
  • Driving sales and cash margin; not customers being responsible for percent margin

2. Loyalty Approach vs. Loyalty Program

We demonstrate loyalty to our customers by taking a loyalty approach wherein we commit to rewarding and delighting our customers with products and experiences that meet their wants and needs.

  • We call this putting customers first—when we decide on priorities and actions based on insights from our customer data.
  • By doing so, a retailer becomes an even more prominent choice in the customer's consideration set. This is not a tactic; it is a long-term strategy that makes the customer the focal point of our business decisions and objectives.

The loyalty program is an important element within a loyalty approach, as the key source of the data that enables customer intelligence, and as the channel that enables us to talk to our customers personally. I call the loyalty program the "little l" in loyalty, with the loyalty approach as the "big L."

But a loyalty program is not required to act in a loyal way to customers. Here's how to think of "big L" loyalty:

A loyalty approach, simply put, embeds customer insight throughout the retail organization to enable better, faster decisions and thereby increase sales and profit sustainably. Best-in-class practitioners have seen an incremental sales uplift in the early stages of a loyalty approach of between 1% and 2% and later stages between 3% and 4%, quarter over quarter and year over year.

3. Loyalty Is About the Store, Not Just the CRM

As I used to say to my retail colleagues, "If the store is lousy but we deliver brilliant targeted CRM, the store will still be lousy."

Even if the personalized CRM is perfect, customers need to perceive that tangible changes have been made in the store itself before they will respond by giving more of their custom. We must put customer insights into action within the "hardwiring" of retail practices—pricing, promotion, assortment, adjacencies, new products, the checkout experience and so on.

In a previous article, I shared several examples of being loyal to customers in store by simply making the shopping experience easier—setting the yogurt section by customer need rather than by brand blocks, for example, and by setting product adjacencies according to how customers shop, rather than by how items are sourced in the supply chain.

3 Ways to Activate a True Loyalty Approach

  1. Make better business decision by putting the customer first. Everything is better when you start with the customer. Start with the data you hold on customers—understanding how they shop and behave, what is important to them and how they engage with your business. This insight will identify a number of opportunities for better decisions using the data.
  2. Improve the customer experience by using data-driven insights to improve your retail offering, such as assortment, pricing and promotions. Use insights to connect you to your customer through the store. Think of the mantra "data to insights to actions"—this is how improved like-for-like sales growth and customer loyalty is delivered.
  3. Transform the organization using customer-driven insight to help you better understand, anticipate, measure and continually respond to your customers. This is realized through empowering, aligning and equipping your people with relevant insights, values, goals, strategies and actions.


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[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at David.Ciancio@dunnhumby.com].

Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.


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Memories of panic buying may be fading here in the UK but have resurfaced elsewhere1. The near constant threat of another wave of Covid-19 may yet prompt another round of hyper demand. Whilst there is little hard evidence to determine the underlying drivers of panic buying2, there are numerous theories that the retail industry may benefit from exploring.

Feroud Seeparsand, dunnhumby's Senior Consumer Psychologist, outlines some likely theories to explain the 'why' behind the 'panic buy' and some implications for retailers to prevent it reoccurring in future.

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The dunnhumby Consumer Pulse Survey is a multi-phased, worldwide study of the impact of COVID-19 on customer attitudes and behavior. We surveyed more than 27,000 respondents online in 22 countries, with interviews conducted for Wave one from March 29 – April 1, for Wave two from April 11 – 14, and for Wave three from May 27 – 31. Due to the rapidly unfolding crisis in North America, dunnhumby conducted Wave four from July 9 – 12 in the U.S., Canada and Mexico only. Here are highlights from the study:

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In a series of posts published earlier this year, we covered the results of the dunnhumby Customer Pulse – a global study designed to explore changing consumer mindsets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over three waves, conducted between March and the end of May, we polled thousands of people from more than 20 countries on subjects including supermarkets' responses to the outbreak, the economic outlook, and how their shopping behaviour had changed due to COVID.

At the beginning of September – three months on from the previous wave and with supply chains stable and the changing nature of lockdowns – we wanted to revisit the Customer Pulse to see what, if anything, had changed. Below are some of the standout findings from this fourth tranche of research.

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assorted fruits at the market

Photo by ja ma on Unsplash

In the decade since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness was published, nudge theory has enjoyed unprecedented success.

Predicated on the idea that individuals respond better to indirect suggestion than outright commands, nudge theory is commonly used as a way of subtly influencing our behaviour towards positive choices. The idea has gained such traction, in fact, that many governments around the world have created "nudge units" in a bid to tackle thorny issues like obesity and the climate emergency.

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Are you looking to increase your contactable Customer base? How much money are you losing on incorrectly identified Customer communications? Throughout our 30 years of big data experience working with clients across industries around the globe, we have found that maintaining contact through relevant Customer engagement is a crucial component of putting the Customer First.

Essential to preserving contact data is ensuring that you have the most up-to-date information from your Customers; not an easy task. On average, people in the United States will move an average of 12 times in their lifetime. United States Postal Service data indicates 14% of the population change addresses annually. As email contact has grown, it's important to note that, on average, 30% of people change their email addresses each year. This is driven by ISP or job changes, or just to stop being spammed. As people move away from home phones to primarily mobile devices, phone numbers are stabilizing as consumers maintain the same numbers through physical moves.

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FOR RETAILERS

Smarter operations and sustainable growth, powered by Customer Data Science.

FOR BRANDS

Better understand and activate your Shoppers to grow sales.

Retail leaders must objectively understand how their business currently considers Customers before trying to set a more Customer-centric direction and focus. There are some formal assessment methodologies, like dunnhumby's Retail Preference Index (RPI) and Customer Centricity Assessment (CCA), which offer detailed evaluations of a business' capabilities, strengths and weaknesses based on Customer perceptions (RPI) or global best practices (CCA).

The approach outlined below is not intended to replace these formal tools; rather, these observations are intended as a kind of 'toe in the water' to help retail leaders form early hypotheses and points of views. These are rules of thumb, heuristics culled from global experience. Later, leaders might use these observations to informally check progress from time to time as a way of assessing whether the "program in the stores matches the program in our heads".

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dunnhumby’s Prophets of Aisle Six, Episode 2: Heinen's Fine Foods

The Prophets of Aisle Six is the first online reality series focusing on innovation in the food retail industry. In this episode, Jose Gomes, dunnhumby's North America Managing Director, travels to the downtown Cleveland store of Heinen's Fine Foods. Jose meets with Tom and Jeff Heinen, co-owners and brothers, and learns how they are evolving their grandfather's mission of delivering excellent customer service. With 23 stores in Northeast Ohio and the greater Chicago area, and a 90-year legacy, Heinen's is proving that being a small retailer can be an advantage when it comes to data.

In this series, dunnhumby tours the globe and speaks with some of the world's greatest brands, exploring their biggest challenges and how they are using customer data science to meet those challenges.